There was a time when any mention of marketing and the National Hockey League in the same sentence would cause spasms of laughter.

“The NHL? Marketing? You’re kidding, right?”

Well no more! The NHL has actually done some incredible things in marketing the last couple of years.

First, they completely redesigned their website, which now offers video highlights of every goal scored in every game. And the site itself is very pleasing to the eye. It’s fun and informative and jammed to the gills with images and video. And yet, it’s still pretty fast. For my money, it’s what sports league websites are supposed to be all about.

They were also smart enough to award the Winter Classic to the resurgent Blackhawks, at iconic Wrigley Field, which drew some very nice ratings on New Year’s Day. The league’s even warming up to the idea that, just maybe, they should add games to the schedule every year for New Year’s Day – which has been prohibited by their players’ union contract – to capture hockey fans who don’t watch college football or just need a break from the bowl games. Speaking as a hockey fan, I vote “yes!” to this idea.

Then, a few weeks ago, they announced that would start linking to SBNation sports blogs. A smart and revolutionary move: lots of serious fans spend time on those team-based fan sites, with the message boards and the commenting features on the blog posts. This move required a serious mind-shift to the idea that a league might actually benefit from linking to content not controlled by established media companies. This Internets® thing is kinda crazy, eh?!

Most recently, for these playoffs, the NHL started a charity fundraiser called The Beardathon. Fans can join in and either grow a beard or donate to somebody who has. Ladies and children can even fake it by building one online and adding it to your picture.

It’s fun and silly, and it’s for a good cause, and it’s raised close to $250K so far. The Bruins and Penguins are in front by a wide margin, and the Hurricanes and Capitals are doing well in third and fourth. So, the entire final four of the Eastern Conference is running away with this thing.

What’s up with that, West?

And some teams that are still alive in the playoffs aren’t even participating! Vancouver, um, what the hell? Anaheim? Too cool for school? And the Red Wings are barely moving the needle. The Blackhawks are out in front of this sorry group, yet they’re in sixth place, way behind the Rangers, who aren’t even alive any more.

But it’s all for charity, and it’s fun and silly, so it’s all good.

So, while the NHL is still faced with a variety of challenges, including a recent debacle with the Phoenix Coyotes declaring bankruptcy without notifying the league (ooops!), one thing they’ve done a very good job on, over the last couple of years, is marketing.

And that was a sentence that would have gotten you laughed out of the room just a few short years ago. Maybe even committed to an insane asylum.

Totals as of May 7th:

Bruins – 67,444
Penguins – 60,572
Hurricanes – 34,737
Capitals – 34,322
Rangers – 27,339
Blackhawks – 12,129