LEAGUE SEIZES ON STREET HOCKEY TO BOOST ITS PROSPECTS IN U.S.

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The ice hockey revolution in the U.S. starts in the streets.

Or at least, that's what the National Hockey League hopes. The NHL has consistently languished behind its pro baseball, basketball and football brethren in U.S. popularity. But all that could change with the arrival of hockey without ice.

The NHL is building and developing its fan base by not only jumping on the runaway bandwagon for off-ice hockey, but by taking control of the fastest growing recreational activity in America.

The NHL's strategy:

Mobilize the legion of sneaker-clad street hockey players, mostly kids, through the Nike/NHL Street program.

Offer the growing number of roller and in-line hockey players an opportunity to compete through a grass-roots program called NHL Breakout, organized by ace event-marketing company Streetball Partners, Dallas.

Then, get these hockey fans on ice, ideally at an NHL-licensed (or even owned and operated) ice rink/entertainment center.

"If we want to compete with the other sports leagues," said Rick Dudley, senior VP-chief operating officer of NHL Enterprises, "we have to reach the kids who are out on the playgrounds, playing ball and pretending to `Be like Mike.' With the growth of off-ice hockey, we have an opportunity to be in the streets and even in sneakers."

The NHL has enlisted corporate allies and is trying to find more. Nike is tied to the Street program as well as Breakout. Other Breakout sponsors include Bauer, a brand of in-line skates marketed by Nike unit Canstar, and Coca-Cola Co. Mr. Dudley said the NHL is talking with a number of entertainment companies about its ice rink plans.

The basketball of the '90s

The NHL hopes hockey will be in the 1990s what basketball was in the '80s. Nike is counting on it. The growth of in-line skating and its hockey applications didn't escape Nike's attention, thus the purchase of Canstar last year. Sales of in-line skates soared 60% to $495 million in '94, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

Nike/NHL Street is organized out of the league's New York offices in conjunction with participating NHL teams. By July, the league wants the program running in 14 NHL markets.

The teams invite local recreation centers to receive a free turnkey program that includes NHL-licensed street hockey equipment, program training and affiliation with their local NHL team.

The program is being promoted in TV spots created in-house by the NHL and Nike. An 800-number tagged to the spots provides callers with info on the Nike/NHL Street program in their area, as well as background on the game of street hockey. The hope is that Nike/NHL Street will reach 1 million kids by the year 2000.

Roller hockey on tour

Breakout, the official roller hockey tour of the NHL, will visit eight markets from July to November. Each site will see a number of 80-by-140-foot inflatable rinks containing competition at all skill levels, interactive hockey games and booths for sponsors.

Sports Illustrated for Kids, another sponsor, will help promote with print ads. Participants will be able to register at NHL retail partners Champs and Sports Authority, which will be involved with Nike consumer promotions. Coca-Cola will also execute promotions four to six weeks in advance of the event that provide for participant registration.

Mr. Dudley said that within two years, Breakout will become more than a grass-roots program but a tour for professional roller hockey players, akin to the Association of Volleyball Players Tour.

Teams would compete in a center rink in front of spectators-and perhaps a national TV viewing audience. But weekend hockey warriors would still be able to sign up and play in the rinks.

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