One thing that we as hockey fans have always prided ourselves on has been how down-to-Earth the players appear to be. The notion of an NHL professional as a "prima donna" is much rarer than in other sports. These are guys that we feel we can identify with on some level, and for years we have wanted to get to know them better. In the past, the only way we could learn about the players was through interviews and shows like NHLPA's "Be A Player". However, if Tiger Woods and others have taught us anything, it's that an athlete can construct and maintain a public image that is not in line with their private lives. The advent of social media has broken down many of the barriers that exist between professionals and fans. Personally, I think they can go even further. Follow me after the jump where we'll tweet this mother up.
While fans interacting with other fans is nice, ultimately it's the players that we flock to. Witness Paul Bissonnette, aka BizNasty. This is a guy who is a marginal player at best, yet he has over 16,000 followers on Twitter. Maybe it's because he talks about his affinity for the homeless or how baby wipes are under-used; he's good for some shock value, but occasionally he'll provide some real insight into what it's like to be a professional player. He's called out fans in Phoenix for not showing up to the games, and lamented his lack of playing time. I like that he's open and honest, and we know exactly how BizNasty is, even if we don't care for him. Dan Ellis was the same way. He was one of the most popular tweeters, but then he did the unthinkable: he dared to complain about money when he makes millions of dollars. Now, we've been through this and I'm not going to say whether he was right or wrong. What upset me about the whole situation is that people piled on him for giving his honest opinion about something. I believe he handled it wrong by saying it was a joke after people called him out, but that's another story. Either way, I liked the fact that he brought up an issue that we as fans don't really think about, in that players have issues that you and I can't and won't understand. I don't want to read boring stuff like "Going to the rink" or "Had dinner with the boys last night - good times" as twitter statuses from players. I want them to give me an idea on what exactly it is like to be a professional athlete, something I aspired to be before I realized I did not have the physical requirements, talent or skill to do.
I think that players and coaches can take social media even further. I would love to hear what Nicklas Lidstrom's thoughts on the latest season of Project Runway were; I think Kris Draper would be great for the #hashtagmemes that go around from time to time on Twitter; can you imagine Chris Osgood as a commenter of blogs on all the criticism he receives? One my wishes in life is for this to be real: Pavel Datsyuk Twitter. I would like to see the players have foursquare, so we can get updates on where they are. We could see what dive bars Patrick Kane trolls, get a sense as to how often Tomas Kopecky follows Marian Hossa around, and wonder why all of Kyle Wellwood's updates include the words "all you can eat". I know that some of the players have Facebook pages, but it would be great to see what pages they "like": I'll be horrified if any of the Red Wing players like Nickelback, but won't be surprised when all of the Toronto Maple Leafs like "golf". Most of all, I'd love for some of the players and coaches to get blogs. Ted Leonsis has one, and while I don't agree with a lot of what he says, at least he's honest about his opinions and does not shy away from them. I'd like to know if Mike Babcock has a sense of humour, or if Ken Holland is self-deprecating, although I can't imagine how much productivity would suffer if there were more blogs out there.
I understand that the NHL does not want their players, coaches and managers too far "out there". They are in the business of entertaining, and the Dan Ellis situation showed us that the fans can turn on athlete they considered to be popular very quickly. The NHL is already in a precarious position in that they can't afford to turn anyone away from the game. I think the NHL, more than other leagues, does a good job at promoting the players off the ice in a way that allows us to identify with and care for them as people and not just players on our team. We as fans want access to the athletes so we can see them as more than just a number or position on our favourite teams. By expanding the use of social media, the NHL would allow the fans to delve deeper into what it is like to be an NHL player, strengthening our connection to them, the team, and ultimately to the league.