NHL teams feel the force of Star Wars fervor

Penguins mascot Iceburgh joined the dark side when Pittsburgh hosted its first Star Wars night earlier this month against the Islanders. Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

A few days before the 2017-18 season began, Phil Kessel arrived at PPG Paints Arena to fulfill a few preseason obligations: filming PSAs, ticket reads and announcements for the Pittsburgh Penguins' foundation. One ask was a bit unconventional. Dressed in his jersey, Kessel stood in front of a green screen and stared into a camera. Instead of his regular helmet, a Penguins staffer would virtually screen on a different one later -- of the black, angular Darth Vader variety. "The Force is strong with the Penguins," the veteran winger said, with little inflection. "Join us and fight the dark side when we battle the Islanders on our special Star Wars theme night. Buy tickets, you must."

Welcome to one of hottest trends in NHL arenas. Twelve teams will host Star Wars-themed nights this season, a practice that began surfacing over the past decade -- before the most recent sequel trilogy. The Tampa Bay Lightning held their first Star Wars night seven years ago, and by the time "The Force Awakens" opened in 2015, nine other teams had joined in. The trend has picked up significantly since then. As the reignited cult obsession sweeps the world, of course NHL teams are trying to latch on.

"When you host these nights, you get folks who are just Star Wars fans," said Aaron Teats, the Anaheim Ducks' chief marketing operator. "Maybe they wouldn't have necessarily seen the Ducks play the Carolina Hurricanes. But these Star Wars fans -- and there's a lot of them -- when they see something like this done on such a large scale, they want to be part of it."

A Star Wars theme night involves a few staples. Usually the team hires a cast of "characters" in Star Wars costume to roam the concourse (fans are invited to dress up, too). The San Jose Sharks had about 75 such characters at their Star Wars night on Nov. 4; the Arizona Coyotes boasted 100 on Nov. 25. Then there's a slick promotional poster, which has become something of an arms race among marketing departments. A few years ago, the Sharks photoshopped Brent Burns and his fuzzy beard into a Wookie body. ("We are a fan-facing organization," said Casey Lapenen, the Sharks' director of marketing and fan development. "And we never take ourselves too seriously.")

The Florida Panthers wooed everyone last season when they swapped hockey sticks for light sabers (it's better if you don't get too technical; assume the rods aren't burning through Vincent Trocheck's Bauer gloves). These things involve significant planning and prep work. Stephen Gerhard, the Panthers' senior director of group sales and development, said the team photographer dedicated an entire day to capturing players' faces at the right angles so they would fit into the poster's design.

Teams buy licensed packages so they can incorporate sound effects -- such as the roaring swish of pod racers -- and Star Wars-branded infographics for the jumbotron.

Although an object alone cannot make you good or evil, there are typically sweet giveaways for the fans who attend the game: the Coyotes offered Paul Bissonette Obiz-Wan Kenobi bobbleheads this year, while the Panthers handed out Star Wars mesh jerseys.

Each night offers a signature flare. Lightning winger J.T. Brown arrived to the arena in a white suit patterned with Star Wars logos; the New Jersey Devils had a Darth Vader lurk on the Zamboni; the Penguins shot a promotional video with Anthony Daniels, the actor who plays C-3PO. (Pittsburgh's senior director of information technology happened to sit on a panel with Daniels at Carnegie Mellon, and extended the invitation personally.)

"Some teams are using it as a ticket driver to add more value to the ticket and come to a Star Wars night," said Eric Blankenship, the Lightning's VP of marketing. "We're going to be sold out regardless. If anything, it's more effort. But we think it's worth it to improve the game experience to be hyper relevant right now. And then some of us are just Star Wars fans. So it's fun to do."

What else do NHL teams get out of all of this, besides a little fun?

It helps lure casual fans back into arenas.

"We're trying to get our fans off their butts," said the Sharks' Lapenen, "and have them come to a couple more games a year." Gerhard said that the Panthers "intentionally try to find an opponent that wouldn't be a big draw." (Last year's Star Wars night in Florida fell on a Tuesday against the Atlantic Division cellar-dwelling Buffalo Sabres.)

Theme nights used to be the exclusive province of Major League Baseball teams, which endure a grueling 162-game schedule and battle a host of summer distractions, and minor-league teams, which often rely on kitsch to attract an audience to events with largely anonymous players. Over the past decade, NBA and NHL teams have gotten in on the action. Remember the Atlanta Hawks' Swipe Right night? Or how about the Toronto Raptors' evening honoring all things Drake? Trends come and go -- while Blankenship says Tampa Bay's Pokemon Go night last season was a huge success, it didn't make the calendar in 2017-18 -- but Star Wars has staying power.

"With the renewed popularity of Star Wars over the last three or four years, it's opened it up to an entire new audience," said the Panthers' Gerhard.

"I remember, as a child, seeing the very first 'Star Wars,' lining up around the movie theater to get there," Teats said. "What I find amazing is that this spans generational borders. It's one of those things that fathers and sons and daughters and mothers feel good about. It's a sense of relevancy for everyone."

It seems telling that the Penguins, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, are even getting in on the action. Over the past decade, Pittsburgh rarely hosted a theme night. This season, they're hosting one for every Thursday night home game -- including, yes, their first Star Wars night.

"Something the sports world is juggling with right now is information overload," said Leo McCafferty, the Penguins' senior director of digital marketing. "Fans can follow games on their phone if they want to go out to dinner with friends, they can check their score on their phone, they can check highlights instantaneously. You're seeing of it more in sports: What can we do above and beyond having a great product on the ice to make it more entertaining? What's something we can offer that you can't get anywhere else, that would convince you to spend your entertainment dollars with us?"

Even Pittsburgh is in the business of attracting new fans. Anthony Daniels, aka C-3PO, had never attended a hockey game until he showed up last week for the Penguins' Star Wars night. May the Force be with him.