The NHL is busy developing a social media policy now, that will govern how the league and its players interact online with fans. It's an important move because if it's done right, it could really help promote the sport among the generation of people who think opposable thumbs are meant for texting. Conversely, if the league bumbles it, it could create the perception that the NHL is a dinosaur and paranoid.
The internet is already changing the influence of the fan in the hockey world, giving them a power they never had before. Once upon a time, a newspaper reporter wrote Maurice Richard skated like a rocket, and an iconic nickname was born. This year, when the Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec and Michael Cammalleri line was tearing up the league, a quick-witted fan tweeted or facebooked or blogged that the line should be the "ATM" line because it's money in the bank. Two days later, the title was showing up on TSN broadcasts.
It's also giving the fans a new kind of power over the players. It's one thing for the guy who's slumping to avoid watching highlights on TV or reading the paper. It's a whole different thing to avoid tweets or facebook messages from fans, or the online headlines that pop up every time he tries to check a score on his blackberry. Opinions are everywhere, and when you're dealing in ego with confidence as a currency, negative ones can hurt.
Information travels at greater speeds than ever online, and so do trends. The guy who's today's hero is forgotten tomorrow as the next star emerges. And the power of the internet is like the ultimate word of mouth, giving fans opinions about players they've never seen on the ice. A kid like P.K. Subban can come into the NHL with thousands people already chanting his name, and you can be sure most of them weren't checking out the Hamilton Bulldogs games last year. The adulation is unearned, but it's intoxicating, and a player can buy into that at his own expense.
The flip side of this is the player gets a little closer to the fan. Following a player's facebook or twitter account gives the fan an insight into the feelings a guy has when his team loses six straight. We get to know the little mundane details, petty annoyances and insane privileges of the pro hockey lifestyle. Suddenly, the guys who were idols doing things we mere mortals could only dream of doing became more like the guy down the street who just happens to make a hell of a lot of money for playing a game. Players we hated on teams we couldn't stand can elicit our sympathy or make us laugh.
Look at Paul Bissonette in Phoenix. The guy is a goon who gets scratched for most games, yet he's created a huge fan following because he's philosophical and irreverent about his role in the NHL. He's everyman, who's a lucky enough bum to be living the dream, even if it comes with a few bumps. He's an appealing and funny personality online, and fans are drawn to him for that reason. It's refreshing to get inside the head of a guy who doesn't speak robot, like so many NHL players do.
Still, I'm not sure if that closeness between player and fan...even the artificial closeness of the internet...is a good thing. It's certainly nice to have the peek inside the NHL world. But part of the fun of being a fan is having that mystery. We believe in intangibles like leadership and courage. We don't really need to know if there's a squabble in the room or a respected leader is a dummy or someone we admire is really a jerk. Knowing the truth and demystifying the players who dazzle us with their skills takes a bit of the magic out of being a fan.
There's a fine line between knowing a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes and humanizing players to the point where we can no longer suspend disbelief, which is part of our role as fans. We need to keep the players on that pedestal or disillusionment sets in pretty quickly. There hasn't been a whole lot of attention focused on the NHL's new social media policy, but perhaps there should be more. Even if it's flying under the radar, it's going to be a very important step in the evolution of the player/fan relationship.