The Craziest Season on Twitter

Picture tweeted by AHL defenseman Jordan Henry from a recent issue of The Fourth Period magazine.

Over the past several years it has grown into a hackneyed cliché: "Twitter has changed the game." The phrase is paradoxically both new, and well-worn from gauche over-use, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t completely true.

Yesterday, for example, a Twitter user known as "@SamJam99" tweeted that the Canucks and Leafs had agreed upon a deal for Roberto Luongo, and were simply holding off on the announcement until late June or early July. Often times a rumour tweet of this nature will surface (@IncarceratedBob tweeted that the deal was "80% complete" just last week) and everyone will write it off. @SamJam99, however, has beaten the mainstream media on three major occasions over the past several years.

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He first gained notoriety when he was the first to accurately state that the Canucks were going to file tampering charges against Ron Wilson and the Leafs over their Sedin twins comments in the summer of 09. (Update June 6: SamJam didn’t break the story, so much as he made noise with an on-line petition. I apologize for the inaccuracy of this particular statement). In the fall of 2011, he was thirty minutes ahead of TSN on the exact particulars of the David Booth for Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson swap. In February of 2012 he beat TSN by a similar margin with again, the exact particulars of the buzzer-beating Hodgson for Kassian trade on trade deadline day.

Again, this isn’t some dude guessing about what the Canucks are going to do, this is a kid who had Sulzer and Hodgson heading to Buffalo in exchange for Gragnani and Kassian thirty minutes before any mainstream outlets were reporting it. He correctly had Sulzer in the trade damn it – so you know he wasn’t just guessing.

A kid with a shady, reliable source is one thing, but it’s just one part of a larger tableau of what’s been a particularly fascinating, "game-changing" season for the Canucks on Twitter. It has been so odd, and so unique, that I think it’s worth discussing further.

Read past the jump.

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Mike Duco versus Canucks Nation

In retrospect this incident was nothing but a minor brush-fire, a harbinger of a new era of fan/player interaction and a curious case study in how guarded a professional athlete should be with what they say on their public Twitter account.

To recap, Mike Duco is an undersized grinder and a farm-hand with an exciting firebrand play style. He’s a guided missile on the ice and the best jerk puck player this side of Dustin Brown (without the top-line upside). He’s also awesome on Twitter.

For example, Mike Duco once responded to a couple Canucks Army bloggers who had theorized that he was a vampire, by basically confirming that fact on Twitter. That was after he reactivated his Twitter account, however. You see, before Duco was acquired by the Canucks he was a member of the Florida Panthers organization. During last season’s playoffs, Duco openly rooted against Vancouver’s club on Twitter. He insinuated that the twins were soft and mocked some of Luongo’s decision making.

A few months later he was acquired by the team he had spent several months taking shots at on a public forum. Harrison Mooney (chief curator of Canucks/Twitter oddities) blogged about Duco’s "rooting against the Canucks" tweets, and inadvertently set off a fire storm as angry, sensitive Canucks fans hounded Duco temporarily off of Twitter.

Last summer, Mike Duco demonstrated a fascinating new wrinkle in the fan/player relationship. If you’re a farm-hand grinder, or a dude without a No Movement Clause – you’re best not to be seen openly rooting for any one team against another (besides your own, of course). For all you know, you’re only a few months away from donning the team you hate’s jersey.

Eventually, Mike Duco dusted himself off, activated a new account, and went on his merry way running an extraordinarily entertaining Twitter feed at @Duco1787

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Dale Weise versus Common Sense

In contrast to Mike Duco, who after a rough start quickly leveraged his Twitter feed to accentuate his fan-favorite status, Dale Weise has struggled to use Twitter to his advantage. Dale Weise was a significantly bigger part of the team than Mike Duco was last season, and he quietly had a very strong rookie season despite being deployed in extremely challenging circumstances. Despite his solid play and his "safe-minutes" effectiveness, Dale Weise has to be the most unpopular Canucks grinder in recent memory.

When Weise first joined Twitter, it was around the same time as the site introduced the "Activity Page", which, was Twitter’s answer to mini-feed, and allowed for greater efficiency in stalking. Dale Weise’s understandable, and hilarious habit of following only the prettiest girls quickly caught peoples attention.

Weise is a young man who in a matter of months went from being a faceless AHL forward in Hartford, to being a recognizable celebrity in hockey-mad Roxy city. I can’t even imagine how tempting and fun that must’ve been. Weise ultimately was perceived to be using Twitter to enhance his social life, rather than to connect directly with his fans, and most regular tweeting Canucks fans didn’t find that particularly endearing. That he was prone to being overly sensitive in the face of mild criticism exacerbated things further.

During the Eastern Conference Final, Dale Weise found a photo of him absolutely drilling current teammate Dan Hamhuis when he was a member of the Rangers. Weise changed his display picture to that photo, which, caused some Canucks fans to criticize him for supporting his former team at the expense of his current employer. Cam Charron wrote that he thought it was a silly move for a guy who is essentially a replacement level fourth line option to provoke his fans in such a manner. Personally, I have no issue with this choice, I actually think it’s pretty funny. But people reacted negatively because of the reputation Weise had previously built himself, like Alex Burrows in a game refereed by Stephane Auger, he didn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

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Which brings us to another "game has changed" lesson: if you’re a player with a branded, individual Twitter account, you’re a defacto arm of the team’s marketing apparatus. It’s a lot of responsibility, and it’s difficult to balance "doing it right" with "being entertaining." Running a selfless feed is lesson one in profile building and community management, and for players that means "fans first." I imagine that sounds entitled and insufferable, but it’s the advice I’d give professionally (and for the record: I make my living in social media and digital communications). Dale Weise’s Q-Rating continues to lag because he didn’t quite get that right.

@Taj1944 versus Ritch Winter

There’s a Canucks tweeter who uses the handle @Taj1944. I started following him well over a year ago because he has an uncanny habit of asking the right questions. If you ask Province Sports writer Jason Botchford (who is easily the best MSM Sports writer in Vancouver when it comes to interacting with fans) the right questions, you’ll consistently get a lot of good information. No one is better at this than @Taj1944.

In the wake of the Cody Hodgson blockbuster, a trade which blindsided most Canucks fans (myself embarrassingly included) there was a lot of scuttlebutt. Did Cody Hodgson request a trade? Had he met with the Canucks immediately prior to complain about his role? How exactly did the Canucks decide to trade such a promising young player?

Hodgson’s verbose player agent Ritch Winter took to Twitter to obfuscate the issue, but it was @Taj1944’s relentless, pointed prodding that yielded an actual scoop. @Taj1944 managed to get Ritch Winter to admit that Hodgson had met with Vigneault, and had requested more ice-time merely two days before the trade deadline. It was an admission that, while Hodgson’s camp may not have requested a trade in so many words, it was pretty clear what they were angling for. 

Which goes to show you the liberalizing impact of a direct, person to person medium like Twitter. One of the biggest scoops of the year wasn’t uncovered by a credentialed reporter, and it wasn’t even uncovered by a crusading blogger – it was ferreted out by a persistent, intelligent Canucks fan who was simply asking the right guy, the right questions.

Brit Carnegie versus Cory Snyder’s Girlfriend

Brit Carnegie is a Vancouver native, and the girlfriend of fellow Vancouver native Milan Lucic (who moonlights as public enemy number one for some Vancouver hockey fans, who don’t remember his Memorial Cup glory). She’s been extraordinary active on Twitter for years, and has used her account effectively on occasion. When she took to Twitter to push back against a police incident last summer, she managed to clear up confusion and told her and Milan’s story in a sympathetic manner. She was also the first to tweet photos of Lucic’s desecrated church in Vancouver.

One night in Vancouver, however, she attended a Canucks game and wore a Boston Bruins hat. Allegedly, Cory Schneider’s girlfriend, upon seeing the Bruins gear, flipped Ms. Carnegie the bird. Her rudeness caused Carnegie to go on a Twitter spree during which she urged Cory Schneider, whose name she spelled "Snyder" to "control [his] broad." Yikes.

I haven’t heard from Carnegie’s Twitter account since, well except for when she tweeted "Karma" after the Canucks lost in round one to the Kings, but it seemed like she was reprimanded somehow upon her return to Boston. Certainly she’s been significantly quieter since. This is the sort of story we’d simply never have heard about even two or three years ago, but in the age of Twitter based sports coverage, we got all of the grimy details.

I’m not sure we’re better off as consumers of sports media now that this sort of thing can become a national story over night, but it certainly represents something "new" and something quite "tabloid-y" about the way that fans interact with pro-athletes. Fan don’t just pay attention to what their favorite player is publishing on Twitter, they also pay attention to what’s being said by the significant others, the family and the friends of those players. 

@Strombone1 versus Convention

Earlier in this post, I wrote that, "if you’re a player with a branded, individual Twitter account, you’re a defacto arm of the team’s marketing apparatus." I’m convinced that that’s an important observation, but to every rule there are exceptions. Roberto Luongo, often criticized by Vancouver fans for his gaping five-hole, now richly deserves a heaping of praise for finding a creative and hilarious loop-hole to the usual conventions of an "athlete tweeter."

Unlike most athletes, who seek to "confirm" their accounts with a little blue check mark, Luongo’s twitter account is intentionally anonymous. That’s part of why it’s so funny, we all know it’s Luongo, but the account refuses to acknowledge it. Instead, Luongo uses the device of Twitter anonymity to talk about himself in the third person. But he doesn’t just talk about himself in the third person, he refers to a fake Luongo account: @notbobbylu as if @notbobbylu is really him, and as if he (@Strombone1) is just some anonymous schmuck. The account is too meta for Dan Harmon, which is totally amazing.

Some of Luongo’s funniest tweets come when he’s under increased scrutiny. He mocked Canucks fans who booed him, he’s joked about which teams are on his trade list, and he’s got a greater variety of fart jokes than he’s got years remaining on his life-time contract.

@Strombone1 is the ultimate game-changer. If it was @Official_Luongo with a little blue check mark tweeting these things, he’d be getting roasted on a daily basis for "making the team look bad" or "disrespecting the fans" or some other thin-skinned crap. It’s the pretense of anonymity that allows Luongo to be "open" with his feed, which, is what fans always say they want, but tend to react with outrage when they get it. It doesn’t even matter that @strombone1’s identity is the worst kept secret on Twitter, by running rough-shod over the usual "official pro athlete account" conventions, Luongo is able to say whatever he wants, while we all just laugh along. It’s genius… 

In Summary… 

Much like the difficulty that Big Daddy Kane often had with pimpin’, being a Canucks fan ain’t easy. The franchise carries one of the longest Stanley Cup droughts in history, and they’re likely to get bumped even further down that list should the L.A. Kings hoist their first cup at some point in the next couple of weeks. The fan-base itself has a reputation for being anti-social, overly serious and too casual, not to mention the occasional propensity for riots. The team is criticized constantly (and usually unfairly) for diving, for cheap shots and for being too European by what seems like a majority of mainstream reporters.

For all of the negatives, and for every single thing that makes it tough on occasion to root for the Canucks through thick and thin, at the very least there is no more fascinating team to follow on Twitter. And it’s not even close. The @LAKings official feed may be more fun than @VanCanucks, and the #HartnellDown campaign is still the best thing to ever come out of a pro-athlete’s interactions with his fans on social media, but put the Canucks and Twitter together and you’ve got a veritable drama factory.

The way that Twitter has changed the game must be a nightmare for the Canucks’ in-house PR team, but for bloggers it’s a gold-mine, and for your average fan: it’s a whole lot of fun.