In case you didn’t notice, or were too busy being mesmerized by Marian Hossa’s sweet third period back-hand goal – a goal that represented an isolated outburst of real hockey in Ottawa this past weekend – social media, and Twitter in particular, took centre stage at the NHL’s All-Star festivities. The All-Star showcase always feels frightfully static: at the end of the day it’s just a skill game, played in slow-motion, absent the faintest hum of hockey’s usual intensity. All-Star weekend is like eating a Subway sandwich: you know what to expect, you know it’ll fill you up, and you know in advance that it will always, always leave you feeling underwhelmed.
For better or for worse, we’ve seen various names, jerseys and venues over the years. We’ve seen the league experiment with formats, and last year the NHL added the "All-Star Draft," which, while a bit dull at times, at least feels genuinely fresh (unlike the North America v. The World stinkers a decade ago). This year, the dramatic change was the wholesale incorporation of "Social Media" into every facet of the proceedings, and for the most part: it was an impressive showing for the league and their players.
As Tim Thomas ably demonstrated last week, it’s a significant risk for a massive brand like the NHL to turn responsibility for brand marketing over to the players themselves. For professional hockey players, like all public figures, you’re always one off colour joke, one unwise tweeted photo, or, one randomly capitalized status update away from creating a media firestorm, and a major distraction. Despite the risks, the upside is something like #HartnellDown, a social media based initiative that will benefit charity, and lets fans see a human, likable side of a high-profile NHL player. It’s great for the league, if done right.
Clearly, the NHL has put a lot of trust in their players to do it right. Without exception, the All-Stars this weekend did exactly that, but while guys like Hartnell and Lupul make it look easy, "doing it right" on a complicated, totally open social network like Twitter is no small thing. Because when it goes wrong, it can get uncomfortable for all parties involved in a hurry.
Which brings us to Dale Weise, who deleted his Twitter account at some point this weekend (it was noticed by earnest Canucks fans on Sunday evening). Dale Weise is a twenty-three year old rookie forward, who the team picked up off of waivers in early October. He’s played reasonably well and has become a mainstay on the fourth line of the one of the league’s top-teams. Sadly, he also made the wrong sort of waves with his short lived Twitter account.
Right from the start, Dale Weise’s Twitter usage got noticed. The right-winger joined Twitter around the same time "the activity tab", a mini-feed type activity monitor, was introduced. The "activity tab" tool gave fans an unusual glimpse into the priorities of their team’s newest tweeter. Along the way, Dale Weise got into a Twitter dust-up with bloggers over their lack of "real jobs" and for their criticism of his fighting ability (his hockeyfights fight card puts his record at 0-6-1 in 7 fights this season). His efforts alienated a number of passionate fans who were well disposed to like and root for him. It was all kinds of ironic, and Alannis would have approved.
Now, I’ve never met Dale Weise, but I’ve got a lot of sympathy for him. He’s a fringe NHL player, sure, but he looks to me to have the skill to make it long-term, and maybe eventually play a top-9 role. He’s not the best fighter by any means, but he has the courage to go toe-to-toe with some scary dudes on a regular basis. He spent the last six years in Swift Current and Hartford, and I have to imagine that going from being a member of the Hartford Wolfpack/Connecticut Whale, to being a member of the "OMG Vancouver Canucks" was an eye-opening experience.
I don’t need to tell you how insatiable, and over the top, the Vancouver market is about their hockey team. Riots, nasty rumours, booing the goalie, obsessing about a rookie’s December ice-time – we’ve got the "no sense of proportion" thing down pat. For a guy like Weise, being thrust into that milieu, with all the attention and a lot of disposable income; must have been at once: intoxicating, annoying and too much fun.
Over the weekend, a distasteful Twitter account popped up with the goal of harassing Dale Weise. It tweeted five times, and one of the tweets was a screen-shot of an anonymous post from a rather disturbing sports-talk "girlfriend" forum. That forum post detailed a one night stand with Weise, set up over Twitter DMs. The anonymous account of the Twitter hook-up is most likely fake, but even if it’s a true story: the details are not sordid at all. To turn the comment into the basis for a twitter account bent on harassment is beyond the pale.
I’d freak out if anyone ever set up an account with the goal of harassing me about my, relatively unspectacular, sexual exploits. You would too. I have no idea if this harassing account (which I will not link to) had anything to do with Weise shutting his account down, but I’d theorize that this type of negative attention was a factor.
As I see it, Dale Weise’s aborted experiment with Twitter raises pertinent questions about the relationship between "fan" and "athlete," and how Twitter especially has altered that equation. Twitter is an open book, especially with its "search" feature. Now that some of us record our observations about the games we’re watching on an open public forum, in real-time, players are exposed to fan reaction to their performance, personality and physical appearance in a way that just wasn’t possible a couple of years ago. Needless to say, it requires thick skin.
The directness with which tweeters interact with one another, has opened major doors in terms of fan interaction with the NHL’s stars. Sometimes all people want is a birthday retweet (who knows why, but people always seem to want some sort of retweet from athletes), or to thank a player for taking time to pose for a photo with them, or to thank them for supporting a particular charitable cause. It should be mentioned that there were a lot of tweets thanking Weise for these sorts of contributions in the community.
As a fourth line guy, with charitable inclinations, who brings sandpaper and a workmanlike approach on the ice: Dale Weise had all the necessary ingredients to leverage an entertaining social media feed, into fan favorite status. But he missed the boat.
I think there are several reasons why, namely that he used his account selfishly, and that he was too sensitive to criticism. Remember, Scott Hartnell was originally miffed that strangers on-line were making fun of his skating ability, or at least the frequency with which he lost an edge. But he harnessed a pre-existing Twitter joke for good, and comes out of the endeavor looking like one of the league’s most beerable, funny dudes. Dale Weise on the other hand, occasionally called out fans for their critical comments, even if the fan had avoided tagging him in the tweet.
Twitter provides users with boundless opportunity, the forum is kinetic energy incarnate. For professional hockey players, this opportunity is two-sided: you can mess up and face criticism, or you can can communicate directly with fans, which, can boost your profile, your team’s profile and the profile of the entire league.
Alternatively, a player account can end up like Dale Weise’s did, and fall somewhere in the middle. Weise’s feed wasn’t offensive enough to create a true media fire-storm, but it was just sleazy enough to rub a lot of fans the wrong way, and to leave a vapor trail of nasty internet rumours. Conversely, while I don’t think he came off as a jerk, it’s hard to argue that Weise’s account was likable enough to add any supplementary value to the team’s own marketing.