EDMONTON, Alberta—In the land of ice hockey fanatics, Integra Tire dealers in Western Canada have a vested interest in following Canada's Olympic women's ice hockey team at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, but they most likely will be cheering on one teammate in particular.
For the past year, Integra has been sponsoring Meaghan Mikkelson, an amateur hockey player, as she trained and competed for a spot on the Olympic team. Integra showcased the athlete in its marketing materials, while Integra dealers and customers followed her strenuous journey to the Olympics through her blog entries on the Integra Web site.
Long before the St. Alberta, Alberta, native was chosen for the team, Integra decided last March to sponsor Ms. Mikkelson, 25, and spotlight her pursuit of her lifelong dream.
She started playing hockey at age 7 and played with the guys when there were no girls teams in her town. She went on to play hockey for the University of Wisconsin and was a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion with the Badgers in 2006-07. She is a First Team All American, Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) First Team All-Star, WCHA Player of the Year and led all NCAA defensemen in scoring.
She played two seasons with the Edmonton Chimos of the Western Women's Hockey League and won silver medals with Team Canada in the 2008 and 2009 International Ice Hockey Federation World Women's Championships.
Her hockey skills apparently are genetic. Her father Bill played four seasons in the National Hockey League (NHL) and her brother Brendan is a member of the NHL's Anaheim Ducks.
Last year Ms. Mikkelson was one of 26 players trying out for the 21 spots on Canada's Olympic ice hockey team. They spent the autumn months playing a 60-game schedule against international women's teams and local men's midget AAA squads in between practicing and training regimens. In December, Ms. Mikkelson was selected as one of the six defensemen for Canada's Olympic team.
Starting Feb. 13, Canada will defend its title, after winning gold in the last two Winter Games. Ms. Mikkelson said the U.S. Olympic team will be the squad to beat. The Canadians beat the U.S. in seven of 10 games they played last year, she said, “so the U.S. will probably be gunning for us at the Olympics.” She added that “it would be great to have a U.S.-Canada (gold) medal game.”
While the practices and training sessions have been intense for the past year, she told Tire Business she is going to try to “enjoy this experience. It's something I've worked for my whole life.”
Early last year Integra Tire—founded by former Tirecraft Group executives after the bankruptcy and dismantling of the Tirecraft marketing group in 2008—was looking for a spokesperson. Famous spokespeople may be recognizable but aren't always accessible, President Darrell Sept said. So the company “went a different vein,” opting to sponsor an up-and-coming sports star. With women's hockey gaining popularity in Canada, Integra decided to look for an athlete in need of assistance.
The company connected with Ms. Mikkelson, who worked for a marketing firm that did advertising for Tirecraft. Due to the intense training and game schedule required for the Olympic hopefuls, Ms. Mikkelson had to quit her job to devote her full time to practices.
Under the sponsorship agreement, Integra paid an undisclosed amount for Ms. Mikkelson's living expenses. “Integra has helped me this entire year,” she said. “Without their funding, there is no way I could pay for my day-to-day living expenses. I'm thankful for that.”
“She is an amateur athlete trying to reach that goal, who really needed to work at it. Our sponsorship helped with that,” Mr. Sept said. “It is a great fit for us. We assimilate that and our winter tires.”
Last August, Hockey Canada moved the 26 players vying for a spot on the 21-member Olympic team to Calgary and for the remainder of the year the players spent their days training, practicing on the rink and playing against other teams.
“It's a full-time gig,” noted Ms. Mikkelson, adding, “It's hard work, but it pays off in the end.”
During her few breaks, she has donned her hockey gear for Integra promotions and marketing materials, posted to a blog on the company Web site and autographed 125 pink hockey sticks that will be used to raise funds for breast cancer research.
However, she hasn't had time to do public appearances for the company, Mr. Sept. said. “It's just building a relationship. We provide the living cost so she can focus on her goal full time.”
Ms. Mikkelson is expected to be the Integra spokesperson for about six months beyond the Olympics.
“The experience has been positive to date for us,” Mr. Sept said.
The sponsorship boosts team-building internally as all 62 Integra dealerships and their employees follow Ms. Mikkelson's journey, he said. Externally, Mr. Sept noted that “a large part of our retail base is female. So there is some connectivity there.”
In addition to the excitement of being selected to play in the Olympics and becoming recently engaged, Ms. Mikkelson experienced yet another thrill—carrying the Olympic torch in front of a sold-out crowd at an Edmonton Oilers/Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game Jan. 14.
“What an honor! I thought it was difficult to try to put into words the excitement I felt when I found out that I would be playing in the Olympics, but carrying the Olympic torch so close to my hometown with my family and friends watching is even more difficult to articulate.
“It was the 77th day of the 106-day torch relay and I was one of 12,000 Canadians that had the honor of carrying the torch. This was certainly one of the most memorable moments in my entire life. To top it off, I got to keep the torch as a keepsake,” Ms. Mikkelson wrote in her blog.