Stan Lee to create roster of superheroes to promote teams

The National Hockey League isn’t the only sports organization to go after kids to grow its fanbase. But it’s the only one that has turned to Stan Lee to create a new roster of superheroes to promote its teams.

Lee, of course, is the creative mind behind such iconic comicbook characters as Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men and the Incredible Hulk. Now he’s also the creator of the Guardians, 30 colorful new heroes designed around the characteristics that represent each team in the NHL.

The hockey league is treating its comicbook creations as more than just child’s play, however.

In fact, the NHL is so serious about its new spokes-heroes that it’s formed a new company, Guardian Media Entertainment, together with Lee’s POW! Entertainment, to roll out the characters as a full-fledged marketing and moneymaking machine when they’re introduced during the All-Star Game on Jan. 30. Versus will televise the game.

The purpose is to “start a dialog with the next generation of fans,” Brian Jennings, exec VP of marketing for the NHL, told Daily Variety. “If you’re not speaking to kids today, there’s no reason for them to suddenly go, ‘Oh, hockey — I want to get into that sport.'”

The idea is to target 9- to 14-year-old boys, first through a website launching Friday. Site offers games that will enable kids to explore the world of the Guardians and learn about the various characters before each gets its own comicbook in February. In March all of the characters will be united in another comicbook series of adventures that will help launch a line of merchandise around the property.

The NHL’s 2010-11 season kicks off today.

Throughout the season, the characters will appear on Jumbotrons during games and their televised broadcasts as animated action sequences (like Fox’s robot during NFL games), produced by House of Moves. A novel is also forthcoming, with an animated TV series and feature film in development. The NHL will promote the characters across its various platforms and through other media buys. It declined to disclose how much coin it was putting behind the effort.

The NHL will closely monitor online traffic and fan reaction to gauge whether to move forward with a TV show on a kids cabler and a film sometime within the next five years.

“As ambitious as we are being about this, we’re also being realistic,” Jennings said. “We want to plant it and feed it and go from there.”

The timing of the Guardians’ launch comes as the NHL is enjoying three of its best years after having suffered through an alarming slump in viewership.

Last year, the league broadcast the most-watched hockey game in 30 years on U.S. and Canadian TV and the highest-rated NHL game in 36 years on U.S. broadcast TV. Broadcasts of its four final games averaged 6.1 million viewers, the best NHL network-TV series average in 13 years, up 9% over the previous year. Despite the sour economy, sponsorship and advertising revenue also rose 66% last season.

Still, NHL execs felt the league needed to “talk to fans differently than we ever have before,” Jennings said.

The rollout is designed to give kids the sense that they’re discovering these characters on their own, which enables them to grow with the property as they learn more about it and make the connection to hockey at a later time.

“Nowadays kids have so many programmed activities there are a plethora of choices,” Jennings said. “You have to be astute, cleaver and think things through to the nth degree or your chances to have something like this be a great success are limited.”

The NHL and GME’s creative team also felt making the property revolve heavily around hockey would have been too limiting.

“It had to have as broad of appeal as possible, but also be a relevant brand for existing fans,” Jennings said.

“This is not about hockey,” said Adam Baratta, who is guiding development of the Guardians as chief creative officer, along with Mark Terry, chief operating officer of GME. “While the characters are the spirit of a team, there will be very little mention of hockey in the storylines,” although longtime rivalries between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, for example, will be represented in characters bickering when around each other.

The overall story centers round a high school kid who has the ability to turn his superhero creations into the Guardians to fend off evil.

“Stan Lee’s pitch was ‘If we just tell stories about hockey, you’re just speaking to your existing fanbase,” Baratta said. “We needed to make this a superhero franchise that has very little to do with hockey so that a kid will fall in love with a character because he’s cool in and of himself.” The scope of the project may be ambitious, but the fact that none of the characters have yet leaked in the age of bloggers and Twitter feeds is even more impressive.

The league began working with Lee and his creative team nearly a year ago to design each character and develop the overarching storyline that connects them all.

Most of the characters mimic their official mascots and incorporate the team uniform colors and reference the cities where they’re based. Not surprisingly, the hero for the Philadelphia Flyers can fly; the Boston Bruins has a fierce bear; one for Anaheim’s Ducks wears a wet suit and wields a spear while riding a surfboard; another for the St. Louis Blues is a Batman-like caped crusader who plays a saxophone; and another for Vancouver’s Canucks is a walking version of its killer whale logo.

Even teams without mascots get their own characters: The Toronto Maple Leafs are repped by a tree-like creature with tree limbs for arms and legs, The design process has been kept a secret from not only the public but also other teams, as well, in order to be able to lock down a final design and prevent others from demanding changes up through the launch.

“It was painful at times dealing with 30 teams but at the end of the day, this should have a lot of staying power,” Jennings said.

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