Forgive me for digressing away from the NHL a little towards the wider world of hockey in this post. The biggest league in the world will be involved, but only tangentially.
In these dog days of summer, when the most intriguing NHL news is who looks good at prospect camp and whether or not that aged free agent will be signed to the fourth line of your team, fans of the sport tend to look anywhere for their hockey fix.
The NHL, however, knows how to feed the hockey-starved masses. After being the first major sport to adopt and embrace the use of social media like Twitter and Facebook to connect with their fans, Twitter feeds all summer are filled with updates, breaking news and off-season interviews with a team’s favourite players. Despite efforts from baseball and football (the American version) to follow the success of the NHL’s social media template, the hockey boys are still seen as the act to follow when it comes to new media.
There are many reasons as to why this is, but one seems to be the sheer professionalism of how the NHL and their teams use what could potentially be a powder-keg of bad publicity-even when the LA Kings Twitter feed gained such notoriety over the Stanley Cup playoffs for barely-veiled shots at the Vancouver Canucks, gentle jabs at the New Jersey Devils and a wave of cheerleading for their squad that bordered on arrogance, the press coverage was mainly positive, citing what a great job the Kings media department were doing.
NHL players, too, are amongst some of the most well-respected users of social media in sport. Paul Bissonette may be a relatively minor name in terms of NHL on-ice stardom, but on Twitter he’s a genuine hockey superstar, known for his sense of humour, irreverent tweeting and attempts to publicise good causes through his stardom. He currently carries over 307,000 followers.
In sheer numbers, though, it’s probably Alex Ovechkin who leads with 400,000+…not bad for a Russian who tweets mainly about where he’s been and what he’s doing in between starring for the Washington Capitals, or retired player and now NHL’s head of discipline Brendan Shanahan.
Of course, where the NHL leads, others follow, including the league in which I commentate for one of the teams-the British Elite League.
This last season appeared to be the one where Twitter genuinely became a major marketing tool for the league, as teams from Dundee in the North to Cardiff in the South realised just how effective direct communication with their fans could be. Accounts had always existed, but they sprung up at a furious rate as British pundits like Dave Simms, coaches from the majority of league teams and players began to sum up their thoughts in 140 characters or less.
Naturally, I joined in with this Twitter revolution, both by driving the Twitter feed of my team’s webcast (it surprised me that one hadn’t been set up before, in fact-it appears that many teams in Britain just weren’t hugely au-fait with the power of social media) and tweeting on my personal account.
However, the lines were blurred somewhat when I received criticism for tweeting my personal views on a signing while having a public connection to the team (in my Twitter bio), as well as the club being unsure about me and my fellow commentator engaging with debate on fans on the webcast Twitter. After discussion with the team the issue was resolved amicably by both sides…however, I’m now a lot more careful with what I tweet to which account and have removed any mention of which club I am part of from my personal bio. My lesson has been well and truly learned.
It seems that the British teams are now not only aware of the power of social media, but also its possible pitfalls involving team personnel.
Well, some of them are, anyway.
One of the most striking things about the NHL players and their Twitter feeds is that they are clearly very carefully regulated. The NHL, like most professional leagues, has a code of conduct which players must abide by (indeed, Paul Bissonnette’s original account was shut down by the league after he made comments calling Russian Ilya Kovalchuk a “communist”-not the most offensive Tweet ever but a little near the knuckle).
Over this summer, however, several players in the British league have come up with the kind of Tweets that would probably get them a reprimand or a fine were they in the NHL. Chief among these is Cardiff’s new signing Devin DiDiomete-a player signed from the ECHL and known for being something of a hothead. Belfast’s Adam Keefe has also been involved in several public spats with opposing fans, as has “the voice of British hockey” Simms.
The issue appears to have come to a head in the past few days, with DiDiomete engaging in a vicious Twitter row with Coventry Blaze’s Mike Danton and Gerome Giudice-a spat in which personal accusations have been thrown around by the Cardiff Devil, who has also referred to the people of Coventry as “mutants” repeatedly. Danton, too, has been repeatedly abused by opposition fans with reference to his past, while DiDiomete and Keefe have got similar stick from Blaze fans.
It has been noticeable, however, that while the Coventry players have chosen to take the moral high ground in responding, DiDiomete has got worse and worse-something which surely must be causing a headache for his paymasters in the way their club is being perceived.
Currently, the Elite League has no written social media policy, with each team responsible for regulation of their players.
The team I work for is becoming increasingly active in their efforts to make sure what the players and staff say publicly is acceptable to most people’s taste, and this initiative is to be greatly praised. They’re also careful with their own Twitter feed, and are indeed fast becoming one of the more professional clubs in the league after listening to concerns. However, the template to follow is probably that of the Braehead Clan up in Glasgow, whose Facebook presence has been a factor in cementing their success as an expansion franchise.
However it seems that at the moment British hockey in general is unsure on just how to handle the double-edged sword of social media. Neglecting it to start with, the teams have now adopted Twitter without (seemingly) being entirely sure how to use it for the best, with reports in the British hockey media community of some teams being very sensitive in some areas but very lax in others-for example an employee for one club often reveals other teams’ signings or attempts to spread gossip, or on one memorable occasion earlier in the season saw attempted mockery of another club’s player get smacked down.
Players around the British league often tweet the kind of thing which probably seems fine in the locker room but not if you’re trying to build a professional brand (the DiDiomete situation is by far the most extreme, but it’s not the first time a player has gone after opposition players and fans on Twitter). With today’s arrest of a teenager for publicly Tweeting abuse to Olympian Tom Daley being one of several high-profile examples of Internet misuse leading to real-world repercussions in British sport, it makes me wonder where this situation will go if allowed to continue.
To their credit, it seems that the British hockey community is slowly realising that they need to utilise social media more effectively, with several teams (notably Glasgow’s Braehead Clan) starting as they mean to go on with fine use of Facebook to promote their events. There are many players and coaches who use social media extremely effectively-Coventry’s coach Paul Thompson, the aforementioned Clan and their staff and the Cardiff Devils club themselves.
However, allowing players to engage in public calling-out of each other for fights, post questionable pictures and references and seeing fans let themselves and their team down by joining it makes me wonder just how effective a “laissez-faire” policy is.
British hockey has done well in following the NHL by making increasing use of social media to promote their brands, teams and sports. However, now the initial steps have been made, incidents like the DiDiomete controversy have brought matters to a head-the people running British hockey need to take the next step and educate their players, clubs and fans on how social media can be used most effectively, lest their current approach does more harm than good.
A “social media policy” similar to the NHL’s is reportedly being prepared for this season, which will govern players, coaches and teams and lay down guidelines on the best use of social media…guidelines which will be applied to all rather than left to the individual clubs to define. This is a hugely positive step.
However, these guidelines need to be strong, clearly-defined and with clear penalties for contravention. Penalties that are applied equally to everyone, whether they be media, player or club official.
It remains to be seen just how effective it’ll be. That’s probably something we won’t see until someone like DiDiomete tries his Internet agitation tricks once the season starts.
It’s going to be an interesting season for British hockey clubs, both on the ice AND in cyberspace.