Case Study: Exhibition Hockey Match Makes For Great Icing on the PR Cake For Ronald McDonald House Charities

Friendly face-off: Former Ronald McDonald House guest Jeremiah King drops the puck in a face-off between NHL players Jonathan Toews (l) and Kimmo Timonen (r). Last summer, Jeremiah was hit by a car while training for a 5K run with his family.

Adam Burish, who played for the Chicago Blackhawks when the team won the Stanley Cup in 2010, now plays for the San Jose Sharks. Nevertheless, Burish is still adored in the Windy City. So, late last year— when the 2012-2013 NHL season looked like it was going to be put on ice due to a labor dispute—Burish contacted Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana (RMHC-CNI).

His goal? Organize an exhibition hockey game that could raise funds for the charity, boost its visibility and provide hockey-starved Chicagoans something to root for during the NHL lockout.

RMHC-CNI immediately recruited its PR agency, Henson Consulting (HC), to turn the idea into a reality. The result was “Champs for Charity,” an exhibition game played at Allstate Arena, with all net proceeds going to families staying at Ronald McDonald House in downtown Chicago, the world’s largest Ronald McDonald House.

The PR campaign had two strategic objectives:

  • Use the Champs for Charity hockey players’ celebrity influence to generate media and public interest in the RMHC-CNI organization and the one-day event.
  • Leverage Ronald McDonald House Charities’ platform throughout all media outreach to inform the public and encourage attendance and support for the event.


The biggest challenge of the PR campaign was time. HC had just two weeks to organize the whole shooting match, from the press conference to the day of the exhibition game. (If the lockout ended prior to the exhibition game, the event would have to be cancelled; the lockout was eventually settled in early January.)

To drum up media coverage for the press conference, HC featured a couple of (legitimate) superlatives in the headline: “World’s Best Hockey Players Return to Chicago to Raise Funds for World’s Largest Ronald McDonald House.”

Several former and current players for the Blackhawks participated in the press conference, which took place at RMHC-CNI. The presser garnered coverage from all the local network affiliates (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) as well as CSN Chicago (Comcast Sports Network), Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.

Julie Hamm, account man- ager at HC, says that it was important that the press conference emphasize the exhibition game and the developments at RMHC-CNI, rather than the NHL lockout.

“We had to make sure [the lockout] didn’t overshadow the cause,” she says. “The players were really good about staying on message and focusing the questions on the charity.”

Following the press conference HC had 10 days to organize the exhibtion game, which took place on Oct. 26, 2012. HC had to move quickly to accomplish the following:

Create a logo design: HC developed a new Champs for Charity logo in hours, meeting the event’s tight printing dead- lines. The logo features the standard Ronald McDonald house logo, but underneath features the new “Champs for Charity” icon, with a hockey puck in the middle of the text.

Develop media materials: HC developed a range of media materials for Champs for Charity, including a press release, several media advisories and multiple pitches to promote the game and raise awarenes of RMHC-CNI.

Cultivate celebrity relations: HC worked closely with Champs for Charity players and agents in order to secure their participation and ongoing support.


In terms of the prepara- tions, it was a challenge to corral the hockey players to participate in the game, which was billed as the Chicago Stars vs. The World (a round-up of other top players). But the effort was made easier once the players knew about the cause.

For example, Bobby Ryan, who plays forward for the Anaheim Ducks and was on The World’s squad, flew in from California for the game.

“Lots of times people lend their names, but don’t show up” to the event, says Kathleen Henson, founder and CEO of HC. “That people showed up from all over the country is a testament to the cause.”

She adds: “We didn’t need to do any heavy lifting. When you have a national connection to
a cause it makes athletes more willing to support it.”

To plug the exhibition game, RMHC-CNI fanned the message throughout the social sphere online, including Facebook and Twitter.


The campaign was able to get additional promotion via local sports anchors, sports- writers and the participating players, who got the word out through their social channels.

The campaign also contacted bloggers who write about professional hockey. There
was no advertising budget for the event, according to Doug Porter, CEO of RMHC-CNI.

In addition to regular seating—with tickets ranging from $10 to $60—VIP tickets were sold for $500 a pop. The VIP tickets included a meet-and- greet with the players before the game; event jerseys that were signed by several of the players and choice seats in the first two rows of Allstate Arena. (A total of 100 VIP tickets were sold.)

During the pre-game warm-up, the players kibitzed with fans and tossed hockey pucks into the crowd.

Indeed, the hockey game turned into a special night for the 28 players and nearly 12,000 fans. The World bested the Chicago Stars 16-15, but that hardly mattered because the event centered on fun and friendly competition.

During the game, fans’ tweets were posted on the arena’s jumbo screen while the Public Address (PA) announcer constantly worked in messages about RMHC-CNI’s mission.

“We refer to it as ‘passion PR,’” Porter says. “Through smart PR, we were able to integrate fans’ passion for hockey [into the campaign] so they could become aware of our efforts.”

Specific results included:

  • The game raised $275,000 net for RMHC-CNI.
  • Following the game, RMHC-CNI saw a 15% to 20% spike in donations.
  • HC garnered more than 176 million media impressions across TV, radio, print and online venues, with placements in major media outlets such as ESPN, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post.

Porter stresses that the exhibition game was successful because it possessed an “air of authenticity,” which hockey fans could appreciate.

“When people saw [Blackhawks’ captain] Jonathan Toews involved they said, ‘If it’s good enough for him, then maybe there is something I can do to help,’” Porter says. “It lent the charity a certain level of credibility.” 

5 Tips for Scoring Athletes for Charitable Causes

1. Align with athletes that have an affinity for your cause: Just like anyone else, athletes are more willing to lend their name and support when they have a strong connection to the cause or charity being promoted. When there is a pre-existing relationship or connection, not only can the athlete speak to the cause more articulately, but the partnership is more authentic.

2. Leverage athletes at convenient times: With the increasing number of games being played in every sport, there is no question that athletes are stretched thin. At the end of a season, many athletes travel out of town, which is an important point to keep in mind when scheduling charitable events to ensure that the athlete is available.

3. Don’t make promises you can’t keep: Professional athletes have very busy schedules—between travelling, game days and appearances—it’s important to respect their time and boundaries and to not overcommit them, especially when it comes to media opportunities. You don’t want to risk ruining a relationship with a media outlet because you made a promise that you couldn’t keep.

4. Be direct—athletes and celebrities want to be told what to do: No matter whether the athlete is hosting or just appearing at the event as a guest, make sure he/she knows what their responsibilities are once they arrive, e.g., conducting a meet and greet, where they should be positioned and what times they need to keep in mind. Providing the athlete with direction and necessary details upfront helps to ensure the event runs smoothly and he/she doesn’t feel like their limited time is being wasted.

5. Provide clear messaging: You’d be surprised how willing athletes are to deliver the exact message you want. Prior to the event, provide them with explicit, concise key messages. This will ensure that the audience receives the message you intended.

Julie Hamm is an account manager at Henson Consulting.


Julie Hamm,; Kathleen Henson,; Doug Porter,