Darian Somers
Thursday October 1st, 2015

Blame Bieber. And Manti T’eo.

They were the first to be the butt of jokes on the Jumbotron at Dallas Stars games but they meant more than that to the NHL.

The maligned duo were also a sign of the times when animation of “Let’s Get Loud” and in-game Twitter updates are being replaced by playful trash-talking at celebrities jokes about imaginary girlfriends in an attempt to attract more attention and interest in the sport from non-hockey fans.

“One of the challenges the NHL has is trying to stand out. We are more apt to trying things that are a little bit more edgy,” Jason Walsh, the Assistant Vice President, Broadcasting and Creative, for the Dallas Stars says. “We need to gather an audience. We need to create a spark.”

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Back in 2012, many people were moved by Notre Dame linebacker Manti T’eo’s 12-tackle performance against Michigan State just days after he learned that his grandmother and girlfriend had died. 

It turned out, though, that his girlfriend was a hoax. She never existed in the first place.

So during the dawn of an NHL season that had been delayed by a lockout, the Stars decided to point a camera on an empty chair at American Airlines Arena and throw up a graphic that read “Manti T’eo’s Girlfriend. Welcome to the Game!”

The graphic went viral, Walsh said, but it wasn’t the one that really caught on.

Just over a year later, pop star and tabloid darling Justin Bieber found himself in the news after being picked up on suspicion of DUI. It just so happened that the Toronto Maple Leafs, Bieber’s favorite NHL team, were in town. Walsh and his crew decided to show some Leafs fans on the big board and followed the shot of them with a bang: Bieber’s now-infamous mugshot.

Enter Jason Hornberger, a Stars season ticket-holder, who just happened to grab a picture of the Jumbotron and decided to tweet it out.

“I put my phone back in the cup holder,’ Hornberger says. ”My seatmate turned to me and said, ‘Your phone is blowing up.’ The next thing I know it’s constantly vibrating, alert after alert.”

The alerts didn’t stop and within 10 minutes Hornberger’s phone battery died due to the overwhelming amount of notifications.

That photo and joke garnered attention from just about everywhere: Deadspin, ESPN, Buzzfeed and, most significantly, NHL fans.

“We want to be able to give them a little bit more of an experience,” Walsh said. “That’s kind of where that started.”

The Jumbotron jokes haven’t stopped since, which is another example of the growth of social media in hockey.

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The Columbus Blue Jackets’ Twitter account is famous for getting things going on social media. Last season, ESPN tweeted at the Jackets,  “Hey Columbus. Think you’re the best fans in the world? Prove it.”

A simple reply of “Who is this?” from the team earned the Jackets nearly 7,000 retweets and 9,000 favorites.

In 2013, when Sharknado first gained success, ESPN also was the butt of a joke when it asked the Sharks about changing their team name. The Sharks’ response:

The Jackets are often caught stirring the NHL pot on the microblogging platform. While the other major sports leagues may shy away from such activity, it’s something that makes the NHL stand out, according to the Stars’ Walsh.

But there is a line.

“You’re trolling, is what you are doing, but you’ve got to find a way to do it tastefully,” he says.

The Maple Leafs answered several tweets from one who had been giving them grief about their recent struggles with meme after meme and lessons on how to sign out of Twitter.

[tweet; https://twitter.com/MapleLeafs/status/609382380219015169]

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When it comes to in-game trolling, the Stars crew won’t attack a specific team or player, but they are not afraid to go after fans or things that areassociated with a particular team’s city. So, for example, the Stars will never bash on Jonathan Toews, but they will bash on Blackhawks superfan Vince Vaughn and Chicago’s renowned deep dish pizza. It’s all in an attempt to build a rivalry, Walsh says.

“If you give a personality or a voice to a Twitter account, people seem to gravitate toward it,” he says. “We thought about that with our in-arena show and we thought, ‘You know what, we can be funny. We can haze other teams and cities to try to develop a rivalry.’”

After the NHL came out of its most recent lockout, the creative team in Dallas sat around thinking of ideas. When conference realignment happened a year later, it was a chance to build new rivalries with opposing teams. While part of that comes from what happens on the ice, Walsh and his staff are also trying to make it happen off the ice as well.

Walsh mentioned an instance of seeing the mischief spread to Nashville and other teams in the league.

“Do them back at us. We will throw it back at you,” Walsh says.

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As a fan in Dallas, Hornberger says the fun has become a big part of attending a game.

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“It’s gotten to the point ... during the TV timeouts, during intermission, I don’t want to leave my seat,” he says

So, hockey fans who have been forced to listen to “Baby” a million times by their closest available tween can console themselves with the knowledge that Bieber has actually helped the sport.

“Who has been made fun of more than Justin Bieber?” Walsh says. “Kim Kardashian right?”

Everyone’s fair game these days.

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