November 10, 2010
After the GM meetings in Toronto on Tuesday, Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier offered a lament that could have emanated from any of the other 50-somethings in the room:
"Apparently, I have a number of Twitter accounts, none of them my own."
Regier admits he doesn't know enough about social media and its implications for the NHL's teams and players. His brethren in NHL management echoed the sentiment, as social media policy was discussed at the meetings.
"Really, the point of talking about it, for all us 50-somethings in there, this whole Twitter/Facebook, we don't quite understand it. And yet this was more a discussion on ‘How do we get ahead of it?'" said Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney, the catalyst for the discussion and the owner of the NHL's biggest social media case study in Twitter star Paul "@BizNasty2point0" Bissonnette.
The best news to emerge from the GM meetings is that there's no hastily created policy in place to gag NHL players on social media. The encouraging news is that the approach to such a policy seems less interested with off-ice behavior than with how it relates to the game -- like having players updating their Facebook status from the penalty box.
"I think we're going to look league-wide, whether it's in fact putting in some sort of overview policy. When it's appropriate [to Tweet]," said Maloney. "It's how people communicate now, so we don't want to sound like dinosaurs.''
Can we trust the NHL's general managers to be that progressive in their social media policies, or are players doomed to be silenced by preemptive measures and overreactions to situations like the Dan Ellis Affair?
Is this the NHL's old guard blowing a chance to reach a younger audience and, in the great tradition of NHL team management, take their money?
For all of the positive news on social media emerging from the GM meetings, it's discouraging that Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Dan Ellis'(notes) decision to leave Twitter, after his comments caused a backlash among followers, remains an influential cautionary tale. From ESPN.com and Nashville Predators GM David Poile:
"You saw what happened with Dan Ellis in Tampa Bay. I know Dan Ellis. I know what he was trying to say about the money and what have you, but he got really crucified for his position. He was tweeting to have some fun, I think, and it backfired on him, and eventually that's going to happen to everyone who has an opinion."
Well, of course it's not.
If Dan Ellis or any professional athlete said these lines in front of a crowd rather than on social media, what would have happened? We're guessing he's not getting bouquets of roses thrown at him.
Isn't it time we all agreed that the Dan Ellis Affair was an anomaly? That this combination of an outspoken player's misguided use of an electronic media, and an audience's adoration for snarky comedic backlash on that media, made Dan Ellis decide to close shop?
There are over 50 players listed by Cap Geek that are currently, or recently, on Twitter. Some clearly are run by an agency or team official rather than a player; others feature personal correspondence between the athlete and the fan. And you know what? There have been far more heartwarming Matt Moulson-signs-autographs moments than there have pissy little Tweet fights like Dan Ellis vs. the flock.
The majority of NHL players seem to understand the boundaries of social media. In the case of BizNasty, his Twitter feed isn't the same dose of insanity that it was before his agent had him shutter his original account over the summer. Maloney said the team has worked with him to help understand those boundaries.
"We don't want to discourage the personalities, we want the personalities. Paul Bissonette is a great story and a great personality. But there's certain lines that you can't cross," said Maloney.
As the commercials say: Go To The NFL, which is what Maloney said the NHL did for insight on a pro sports Twitter policy. The NFL's is disinterested in what occurs away from game day, as the Washington Post explained last season:
The NFL released its amended policy Monday for use of Twitter and other social media platforms by players, coaches and other team personnel on game days, prohibiting such use beginning 90 minutes before a game until following the conclusion of media interviews after a game. The league did not restrict Twitter use by players and coaches on other days.
Mike DiLorenzo, the director of the NHL's social media marketing and strategy, suggested a policy in October 2009 similar to that of pro football:
Following the lead of the NFL and NBA, the NHL said it was close to making recommendations that will prohibit players from using communicational devices for social media activity -- including Twitter and Facebook -- 30 minutes before and after games, practices, meetings and media access periods. The ban would extend to coaches, trainers and all game-related personnel.
DiLorenzo told us at the time that, "I think we see a need for there to be some areas of black and white for what's appropriate." Maloney said much the same thing on Wednesday: "In order to implement anything with any teeth it has to be part of your team rules. It's really something on a club by club basis."
But what does he mean by rules? When to Tweet? What to Tweet? Thought-policing players on social media builds barriers between the athletes and fans in a setting that's been ideal for facilitating that relationship -- and, in the end, it's a business relationship they're helping to facilitate, between professional athlete and paying customer.
Dana White of UFC gets that, which is why he told his athletes to "Twitter your asses off" in order to build fan interest in the sport. The result? His fighters attract fans, make news and grow the brand, warts and all.
D'Ann Faught, on The Sports 007, had a fantastic essay on NHL and social media in which she reached out to New Jersey Devils goal Mike McKenna(notes) about his use of Twitter:
The great thing about Mike McKenna is that he is extremely aware of how social media can build or damage an athlete's personal brand. When asked about why he uses it, McKenna responded, "I believe Twitter is more than a social networking platform. For professional athletes and people with a modicum of celebrity, it's also a personal marketing device. I started Tweeting because it was fun and useful, but over time I have seen the professional benefits associated with it. Although I truly enjoy interacting with my followers, I also realize that having an account aids in creating a personal fanbase.
"In the sports world, a good reputation goes a long way, and presenting yourself in an interesting yet calculated manner on Twitter can only help. With that knowledge comes the realization that self-censoring must happen constantly. I have very strong political and religious opinions but I shy away from such topics. I'd hate to alienate a fan purely based on beliefs. All too often, the only way fans get to know players is through media interviews, which very rarely show off the player's true personality. Twitter is pretty much the antithesis of that."
If we were the NHL GMs, we'd stick a camera in Mike McKenna's face, record that soliloquy for a DVD and show it to every player in the League. (Hell, make it a double-feature with the head-shot clips!) He gets the boundaries. He gets the importance. He gets the relationship in a way others did not, which is why there's no "#MikeMcKennaProblems" meme still thriving on Twitter.
Yes, social media is scary when you're Darcy Regier and you're (a) faced with a growing, uncontrollable clone army on Twitter and (b) you don't exactly understand the technology to begin with.
But ticket sales, fan interest, media attention and successful marketing on a hyper-local level are nothing to fear and are everything that the NHL should be helping to cultivate. If social media guidelines are set, their impact should be minimal; social media training and education are far more desirable for players, fans and the League going forward.
Additional reporting by Nicholas J. Cotsonika/Yahoo! Sports.
• • •
Irony, thy name is Mike McKenna.
The Devils goaltender, whose praises we sung and whose words we featured in this post, was called up by the Devils on Wednesday to back up Johan Hedberg(notes) while Martin Brodeur(notes) remained out with an injury. As re-Tweeted by Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record, here's what McKenna had to say about that Tuesday night:
Someone obviously wasn't pleased with that information getting out before Brodeur was ruled out for Wednesday night, because now @MikeMcKenna56 is no more. Overreact much?
Thanks to cew4ra in the comments.