- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 22, 2011

TORONTO (AP) - Molson Canadian is set to become the official beer of the National Hockey League.

Current beer sponsor Labbatt Breweries objected, saying it has already agreed to terms on a renewal.

Terms of the seven-year deal announced with Molson on Tuesday weren’t disclosed.

“It’s a monster deal,” NHL chief operating officer John Collins said in an interview. “They’re going to have major position across all of our events _ both our existing events as well as a lot of new ones that we hope to create.”

The announcement comes days after the Heritage Classic game in Calgary, the second time the NHL played outdoors over a 50-day stretch.

The North American agreement with brewers Molson Coors in Canada and MillerCoors in the U.S. will see the sister companies heavily represented across the NHL calendar starting next season. It also includes money for television advertising and smaller deals with individual teams.

It’s part of an aggressive strategy developed by the league in recent years to create a series of major events.

“What this will allow us to do is to take the brand to a whole new level,” said Dave Perkins, president and CEO of Molson Coors Canada. “It enables us to really take hockey to our beer drinkers and to fans, and to provide hockey experiences behind the brand.”

Labatt Breweries of Canada said in a release it had been told by the NHL that the league intends to terminate their relationship at the end of June.

“Labatt has been the official beer sponsor of the NHL in Canada for more than a decade and we began sponsorship renewal negotiations with the league several months ago to secure sponsorship rights,” Charlie Angelakos, Labatt’s vice-president of corporate affairs, said in a statement.

“These negotiations with the NHL proceeded positively and in good faith to the point where the parties had agreed upon the terms of renewal of a sponsorship agreement until 2014. Nothing has happened to change that situation.

“We have an agreement with the league and are pursuing all legal remedies available to us to enforce this agreement.”

Bill Daly, deputy commissioner of the NHL, said in a statement: “Labatt has been and continues to be a terrific partner, but we strongly disagree with their assertion that an agreement was in place for the 2011-2012 NHL season.”

The NHL hopes the Molson agreement is another sign of positive momentum as it continues to negotiate new American TV contracts. Agreements with Versus and NBC expire at the end of the season.

Ratings increased for both the Jan. 1 Winter Classic outdoor game at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field and the All-Star game in Raleigh, N.C. _ events that sponsors also gravitated to because of the opportunities they present to both entertain clients and reach hockey fans.

Collins joined the NHL in August 2008 after holding a number of positions within the NFL. He’s helped develop the league’s current strategy and believes it is starting to pay off.

“It’s created a really easy path for corporate partners and advertisers to spend money against hockey,” Collins said. “In this environment, that’s critical _ to be able to attract the blue-chip top advertisers and get them to spend their marketing and advertising dollars on your sport.

“It’s the fuel that drives the entire business.”

Business has been very good for the NHL. The league had already eclipsed last year’s number of sponsor commitments by the midpoint of this season.

In recent months, the NHL renewed deals with Bridgestone, Cisco and McDonald’s while establishing new ones with Canadian Tire, Tim Horton’s and Hershey’s in Canada, and Discover in the U.S.

The league has yet to decide how many outdoor games it will stage each season. While not wanting to make them seem less special, the NHL is having trouble ignoring how big the impact is on each city that gets to play host to an outdoor game _ a point that was reinforced last weekend in Calgary.

“In the market, whether it’s Calgary or Pittsburgh or Buffalo, it’s just such a big deal,” Collins said. “It’s so much fun and really brings people together. From that standpoint, it always feels big in the market.

“The power and the energy in those markets that are involved with the game is hard to resist.”

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