Heidi Browning didn't grow up in an NHL city, nor was hockey part of her childhood, but she now lives and breathes the sport. Browning has one of the most powerful positions in the NHL - Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer - and it's her mission to grow the game's audience by every demographic.
"We spend a lot of time in focus groups and talking to casual fans to understand what would make them want to watch more hockey," she said as she spoke about her role.
Browning is in charge of the type of content that is posted on the NHL's social media platforms, amongst many other responsibilities. But it's Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok (to name a few) that unites and engages fans around the world, and Browning recognizes that - her social media mantra is, "humans are greater than highlights."
"Fans are following athletes first, then teams, then leagues," she explained. "It's not just about your skills on the ice, it's about who you are as a whole human; what's your personal life like? Are you married? Do you have kids, or pets? What do you wear? What do you listen to? All these things matter because athletes are aspirational for fans and the more they know the more deeply connected they feel to that athlete."
Though, as fast as content is consumed these days, the way it's consumed is changing just as quickly. Browning and her team have recruited some of the sharpest young minds - teenage hockey fans - to dissect the league's strategies.
"The Power Players program is my favorite, it is the gift that keeps on giving."
The program sees 25 teens act as an advisor and offer their opinions on topics such as: marketing, community engagement, and social content. Their mission is to find ways to grow the game and its young fan-base.
"They tell you the truth and sometimes that truth hurts, but sometimes you need a mirror held up to your face," she chuckled. "We have conversations around media, culture, sports, music, everything you can imagine, because that's what their life is - they stream so much information and so much content and they retain it and understand it and have a point of view on it. We need to be able to keep up."
Browning is in awe of the up-and-coming generation, and says the program is proving to be beneficial for both parties.
"I had one father contact me after his son had participated in Power Players and he said, 'you have no idea how that transformed him as a person, he was shy in school, he barely spoke', which I found hilarious because he was one of the more dominate voices in the program, but he found his voice and he found his people and comfort zone," she explained. "So if we can infuse life skills into these kids that they can take with them forever, that's what's most rewarding."
Browning knows that youth are the future and says she will never pass up an opportunity to offer advice to a young women looking for guidance.
"Whether it's an 11-year-old girl or someone in high school or college, or a budding executive, I always take the time to talk with them, really help them think through their own path and their own confidence."
Browning says she is one of 200 women leaders in the NHL, and wears that badge with honor.
"I think it's extraordinary, we have a small and mighty league."
Historically, being a sports fan was stereotyped as 'a man's hobby', but it's 2021 and that's not the case anymore; bringing women into the mix is just as important to Browning as any other new and old fan alike. In her mind, there's nothing better "than a rabid hockey fan", and has since become one herself, since joining the league in 2016.