Brave New World: @Strombone1, Player Personality and Subversive Access in the era of “Digital Fame”

Easily the most revealing answer @strombone1 gave @passittobulis in last week’s Twitter DM interview.

Late last week Harrison Mooney of Pass it to Bulis coyly interviewed Roberto Luongo’s irreverent, "anonymous" Twitter account "@strombone1" using Twitter’s direct messaging feature. Generally speaking, the hockey blogosphere and the media reacted by chuckling. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, it was a light-hearted interview, bursting with tongue-in-cheek half-reveals, but no one seemed to realize just how subversive the whole thing was.

The Canucks are not the Nashville Predators, and there is no "bloggers row" in the media box in Vancouver. With a few exceptions here and there (every rule was made to be broken on occasion), the Canucks like most Canadian NHL teams, have a strict "no blogger access" policy and enforce it stringently.

Yet here was Roberto Luongo, maybe the most famous individual player on the Canucks (at least for the moment), granting an interview to a blogger. In the process, Mooney and Luongo completely circumvented team PR, and set up the interview through a series of direct messages between the @passittobulis account and the @strombone1 account. That Harrison chose to take screen shots of the "direct message" conversation, rather than writing out the interview in text, added an extra layer of "taboo" to the exchange. Luongo’s account which, made its name by gleefully playing off of convention, ran roughshod over the usual processes last week, then backed up and did it again.

Instead of commenting on how innovative it was, the focus of many writers seemed to be on Luongo’s reputation and how the public’s perception of him may have been radically different if he’d been #stromboning throughout his tenure in Vancouver. Here’s what Justin Bourne had to say about @strombone1 for example:

"I can’t help but wonder: if Canucks fans and media had known that Luongo had a personality outside of cliched answers to dull questions, would he have had more success in Vancouver, or at least have been more beloved? I suspect he would have."

It’s a sentiment that was closely echoed by Joe Yerdon, over at ProHockeyTalk:

"If it is Luongo on the other side of the urinal avatar, there’s a whole lot of personality we haven’t been privy to there. Let it shine, Lu."

I think those two sentiments are onto something, while also missing the plot a bit. For those who’ve been paying close attention (i.e. Canucks fans), Luongo’s winning, off the wall sense of humour has often been at the forefront. His comic stylings were evident when he played for the Panthers, but his greatest pre-Strombone bit of comic theatre was when he read self-deprecating poetry on TSN. Here’s some choice prose, from the poem titled "shootout blues" where Luongo mocked his own struggles in the skill-competition:

"Sixty five minutes then a stupid gimmick / Tarnishing my name after a 48-save game / Five-on-five I’ll keep you alive / Four-on-four you will not score / Then you! Shootout! I despise you, I will not lie / Why can’t we just end it in a tie?"

Of course, not all of Luongo’s jokes always "hit." Recall May 11th 2010, Luongo allowed five goals against as the Canucks were eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, in the second round of the postseason, for the second year in a row. Luongo’s response to questions about his play that night was to glibly reference the horrific third period he had at the Mad House in game six of the first Blackhawks series the season previous: "Hey, at least I didn’t let in seven." Doh!

Now one might applaud Luongo’s ability to have a good sense of humour in a painful situation, but needless to say, that quip didn’t go over very well in some corners of the Canucks fan-base. To quote Jason Botchford: "Luongo and public relations has always been like a scene in the Hurt Locker. Something always was on the verge of blowing up. We all saw it happen in the Cup final, pumped-up tires and all."

Yes, the "pumped tires" thing, one of Luongo’s most misunderstood moments. By his own admission, Luongo was on an emotional high after his game 5 shutout of the Bruins, and he dropped a comment about how he would’ve made the save off of Maxim Lapierre that Tim Thomas didn’t. He was probably right, Tim Thomas’ battlefly style takes him well outside the crease constantly, whereas Luongo’s play style is significantly more conservative. Luongo had the Bruins right where he wanted them, he was riding high and he got over-confident and emotional. Ultimately he shanked what I believe he’d intended as a simple, technical comment on goaltending styles.

We actually all saw something similar happen again just last week, actually the same day that the subtly groundbreaking interview with Pass it to Bulis dropped. Luongo was being praised far and wide for the interview, he was the hottest thing on Twitter, when all of a sudden he was called out by Legion of Blog writer @SteveintheKT for being "objectively" unfunny.

During the course of their back and forth, Luongo goaded Steve into tooting his own horn and Luongo RT’d Steve’s boast with the comment "pumping your own tires is gay." Twitter promptly exploded with recriminations, as Luongo deleted the tweet, apologized profusely in public and in private, and ultimately cleaned up an unfortunate situation with aplomb.

To be crystal clear, Luongo didn’t handle Steve’s criticism very well, but he handled the fall out perfectly. Maybe it’s just me but I’m convinced that it was the Twitter equivalent of the "tire pump" fiasco: Luongo was riding high, he had Steve right where he wanted him, he was one word away from pulling off a pretty sweet takedown, but he got emotional and he shanked what he’d intended as a harmless joke.

One thing to consider is that, while Luongo’s english is top-notch (and he deserves a lot of credit because learning two languages is one thing, being funny in two languages is another thing entirely) it remains his second tongue. Perhaps that’s a partial explanation for why Luongo has so often ended up with his foot in his mouth, even when he’s making relatively innocuous statements. More than that, I think he’s just a very emotional guy. In the past he’s spoken about how it drives him, about how he needs to be emotional to be successful. Of course, there’s also the other side of that coin and he’s admitted, in his own words, that he’s let his emotions carry him away on occasion

In contrast to the idea that "Luongo might be more popular if he’d shown more personality throughout his time in Vancouver" I’d argue that so many of his issues with public relations were the result of the fact that he showed too much. Let’s cue up the always eloquent Ellen Etchingham on the dangers of players being open with fans and the media:

All it takes to ruin an image is the mismanagement of one interview, one bad soundbite, one embarrassing iPhone pic… Cross any one of these arbitrary and often invisible lines and your life becomes a sea of the same stupid jokes and repetitive questions, people making fun of your habits and questioning your character, which (again) is difficult to handle gracefully and even more difficult not to be distracted by.

We’re talking about a guy who has been criticized constantly, unfairly and obnoxiously – often for absurdly miniscule things like: signing a sponsorship deal with a poker company, not getting a start on the road, saying he was looking forward to a regular season game, or pointing out that he plays a more conservative "butterfly" style than the opposition’s goaltender. I mean really, it’s pretty ridiculous. 

Last week, Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell – had a really interesting e-mail exchange at covering "digital fame." They point out that Lebron James, who rose to prominence in the era of the internet, is probably the most criticized athlete in the history of sports. While I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that (there are more basketball fans, than there are hockey fans, after all), I do think Luongo has a pretty strong case for that crown.

First of all, goaltender is a specialized position, and goalies are seen by many fans and media members as distinct and apart from the team in front of them. When the Canucks have lost with Luongo in net, nearly all of the time the blame has fallen squarely on his shoulders. That happens to Lebron too of course, but I have to think that the very nature of the position that Luongo plays, causes him to face more pressure on a game-by-game basis, and at least a comparable level of criticism for his team’s failings.

Secondly, I imagine there’s nothing quite like playing professional hockey in a Canadian market. The pressure and criticism is insane and completely omnipresent. Not only has Luongo played in a Canadian market, which, is impossible enough – but he’s played in a Stanley Cup starved Canadian market for a contending team. Throughout that time, he’s often been painted as the singular reason why the team has been unable to become champions. 

Can you honestly tell me that Lebron James has played in three games with as much gut-wrenching pressure falling particularly on his shoulders as Luongo has? Consider: the Olympic Gold Medal Game in 2010, Game 7 of the Canucks first round series against Chicago in 2011, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, also, in 2011. Those are games in which Luongo was playing for history (or to avoid infamy), for his reputation, for his country. He won two of the three, and the one he lost resulted in a riot that engulfed much of the downtown core. Yeah.

Can you really throw "Game 6 of the NBA finals in 2011" or "The Olympic Gold Medal Game against Spain in Bejing" into the same category? I don’t really buy it. Add in the fact that Canadians tweet more than any other nationality does, and use the internet more than their American counterparts – and I think Luongo has been picked apart and savaged unfairly in at least a comparable manner to what Lebron has dealt with.

Like Lebron, Luongo hasn’t received enough credit for how well he’s handled these challenges. You don’t see him taking years off, and it certainly hasn’t dented his competitive spirit or his sense of humour. With the advent of @strombone1: he’s even found a way to communicate directly with fans, and in one fell swoop has turned his reputation on its head. I’d argue that it’s not that his personality has changed, or that he’s showing it more, he’s just found a running gag that appeals to people and he’s poured himself into it. If he made Strombone style jokes in person, the public reaction wouldn’t be nearly so favorable.

The pretense of anonymity, and at this point it’s a thin pretense indeed, has allowed Luongo to take all of the criticisms he’s faced over the course of his illustrious career, and make them into an extended joke. Along the way he’s challenged convention, and subtly broken down long established mores while doing so. Ain’t that a trick?

  • BuzMeg

    Personally I agree with the central thesis here, but has he really turned his reputation right around for anybody more than his 14,918 Twitter followers? The strombone phenomenon has not received mainstream (non-Twitter and associated blogs) notoriety. When I bring @strombone1 up to a casual fan they have no clue as to what I am talking about, nor are they on Twitter. Are all of us in a Twitter bubble?

    Still, its a start.

  • BuzMeg

    The Italians of St-Léonard aren’t exactly “francophones”, if that’s what you’re implying. Even when educated in French, most fall into that allophone category that grates on Jacques Parizeau so. I don’t know the Luongos personally, but based on the typical “Montreal ethnic” experience, I’d imagine his parents spoke Italian to him when he was little, and he grew up with equal proficiency in English and French.

    • BuzMeg

      Luongo’s mother is not Italian but French, so he spoke both languages at home, though I’d guess from his accent in his younger years (check out interviews around the time he was drafted) that he spoke mostly French. He’s actually fluent in all three, which is pretty cool and quite rare in households where parents have different mother tongues.

  • BuzMeg

    Great post Thomas! Lots of fascinating analysis of athlete celebrity in the digital age. Twitter certainly seems to bring players more under the microscope yet also offer them an opportunity to craft their image in ways that post-game interviews may not.

    I’ve always been a big Luongo fan, even if I groaned when he made the “pumping tires” comment… But during his time with the Canucks he’s been professional and humorous (a tricky combination to balance), to say nothing of being a top notch goaltender. If he leaves the Canucks this summer, I will certainly miss him.