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Note to Nike's Mars Blackmon: It's the puck. It's gotta be the puck.

Nike, the world's leading athletic footwear marketer, last week purchased Montreal-based Canstar Sports, the world's largest hockey equipment manufacturer. The $395 million-plus deal is Nike's most aggressive move to date to become the pre-eminent brand name in the booming sport of hockey.

More moves are to come. Nike will introduce its first line of street hockey sneakers next fall, supported with a "Just do it" TV campaign from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore. The Air Street Defender and the Air Street Deke shoes also will sport the logo of the National Hockey League, which signed Nike to a comprehensive sponsorship deal earlier this year.

Hockey's status as a hot sport can be a tough puck to swallow since the NHL has been rendered invisible by a labor squabble that has kept the '94-95 season on ice.

But the story off the ice is different. Roller hockey (played in in-line skates) and street hockey (played in sneakers) have become grassroots phenomenons, especially in the Midwest and southern California. According to the National In-Line Hockey Association, nearly 2.5 million played in-line hockey at least once in 1992, with participants projected to reach 7.5 million by 1996. Sales of in-line hockey equipment will reach $150 million this year, according to the association's research, and will surpass $250 million in 1996.

Canstar expects its 1994 sales to reach $205 million, with $55 million coming from its in-line skating business, up from $26 million in '93. That business is projected to grow 50% in '95. Canstar will be an independent unit of Nike and will continue to market products under an array of brands, including Bauer and Cooper.

Nike's move into hockey comes as the athletic shoe industry's growth has slowed and marketers are looking for new niches to mine, such as outdoor footwear and soccer.

A Nike spokesman said a line of hockey equipment bearing the familiar Nike "swoosh" isn't likely in the short term. It's also not known what role Nike will play in Roller Hockey International, the young and growing pro league. Canstar has helped to develop and support the league, but it boasts few corporate sponsors.

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