While social media gives hockey fans a virtually unlimited window for interaction and news about their favorite sport, NHL teams well know it can be a minefield that must be navigated carefully. The possibility of posting something that is offensive or inappropriate, coupled with the chance of it going instantly viral, is something that players with even the most modest followings keep in mind.
The ability to be funny, edgy and entertaining has made players such as Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo (aka @Strombone), who has 680,000 Twitter followers, popular must-follows.
However, knowing where to draw the line is crucial. Paul Bissonnette (aka @Biznasty), a fringe forward who has played just over 200 games in the NHL since 2008, became a Twitter star with more than 700,000 followers thanks to his often humorous and blunt commentary about the life of a pro hockey player. But in July 2010 he tweeted some ill-advised thoughts from his account @PaulBizNasty regarding New Jersey Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk's blockbuster 17-year, $102 million contract being rejected by the NHL. Bissonnette apologized soon after and then deleted his entire account. After some time off social media, he returned as @BizNasty2Point0 and has maintained his edge and hilarity without stepping over the line. He’s been able to recapture an audience by using his genuine voice without becoming controversial.
In fact, his return to Twitter may have even helped him secure a job for the 2016-17 season.
Forward Zach Boychuk, 26, who has played professionally since being drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2008, maintains a large following of more than 426,000 on Twitter. He also follows upwards of 262,000 people. Like many pro athletes, he's used social media as a tool to successfully establish his name and brand, using the @zachboychuk handle to share his personality with fans, and vice versa, through engagement.
“It makes their day,” he says. “Whether I reply or like one of their tweets, they enjoy the interaction.”
Not all of it is fun. There has never been a shortage of trolls in the world of social media and they are always ready to pounce and goad a player into an ugly exchange that has the potential to blow back on the player or his team. "I would say 90% of [us] avoid trolls but there are a few that engage," Boychuk says. "There's a few that I talk to through direct message but never publicly.
"I've never blocked anyone," he adds. "If someone has something bad to say, I use it as a motivation. Or I ignore it because people tend to say whatever they want behind a keyboard but are too scared to say anything face to face."
Despite the social media-savvy it takes to run such a big account, Boychuk was cautious when setting it up. "Everyone was kind of scared to get Twitter at first,” he says. “I was scared too, a bit. The fact that information gets out so fast is pretty scary.”
While Boychuk has become a seasoned veteran, some up-and-coming players, such as Ottawa Senators prospect Thomas Chabot, are preparing to interact with fans on a larger scale once they make the big show.
“You comment something the wrong way or offend someone on social media, two hours later everybody knows," he says.
Especially for younger hockey players, posting unorthodox, inappropriate or offensive content can be detrimental to their budding careers. Even if it’s an older post, controversial stuff from an athlete’s account can come back to haunt them in an instant.
While teams know what they’re getting with a Luongo or a Bissonnette, social media has been helpful in establishing younger players. San Jose Sharks prospect Timo Meier was the subject of the popular #TimoTime hashtag used by fans of the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads whenever he had a big night for the team.
“As a professional athlete you obviously need to be careful with it because once you put something up on the internet it will be there forever," Meier says. “I think you should always ask yourself one question before you post something on social media: Is it something your grandma would want to see or hear? To kind of get a feeling of what should you post or not.”
Understanding the social media landscape is essential, and some teams are trying to help. “Our policy has been and always will be that a player joining social media is his decision," says Rob Mixer, the Manager of Digital and Social Media for the Columbus Blue Jackets. "We welcome their active participation, of course, because it¹s great for our team and for the players on a personal branding level, but we'll never force it upon them.”
Mixer adds that the Jackets' digital team is always available to help players navigate social media so they safely get as much as they can from their platforms. “The majority of our players who use social media are not only active, they ask questions about certain things we post and how they can be better on social. That¹s music to my ears because it shows they understand that social is not just for information consumption, but it's a powerful tool at their disposal.”
That power can be daunting, especially for players who are just starting to build an online presence.
“When you start to get known by people, you don't want to post anything on social media at first,” says Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Mathieu Joseph. “But in the end we know what is okay to post and what is not.”
Even team accounts have unleashed their inner Biznasty from time to time. The Los Angeles Kings' account is known for being snarky and funny and unafraid to openly troll the Pacific Division rival San Jose Sharks. The Vancouver Canucks recently had some edgy exchanges with other teams. In Feb. 2012, the Calgary Flames "inadvertantly" mocked the Edmonton Oilers for giving middling winger Ales Hemsky a two-year contract extension worth $10 million and ended up publicly apologizing.
Given all that can go wrong, most players approach social media quietly, maintaining an active presence that fans aren't always aware of.
Logan Shaw, a 23-year-old winger who spent most of the 2015-16 season with the Panthers, has 2,691 followers on his @loganshaw11 account but has sent out only 971 tweets since joining Twitter in December 2010. Yet he’s still very much an active user who, like most people, values Twitter as a news feed and means of keeping up with his hometown. Boston Bruins forward Ryan Spooner, aka @RSpooner2376, shares his love of dogs and music with his 27,000-plus followers while keeping current with his favorite bands.
“At the end of the day social media is an outlet to express your feelings freely and no one can really get that upset if they don't agree with something you say or your opinion (within reason)," Spooner says. "On the other hand you always need to remember you’re a professional and you have kids and whatnot looking up to you, so the stuff you post is what people interpret you as."
Says Boychuk, “The best part about Twitter for me is getting a reaction from people and making someone's day just from a simple like or follow. Also, networking and promoting through social media is an extremely powerful tool.” Just one that must be used wisely and warily.