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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman talks on the phone at the NHL's 2011 Research and Development Camp in Toronto Wednesday, August 17, 2011. (Darren Calabrese For The Globe and Mail)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman talks on the phone at the NHL's 2011 Research and Development Camp in Toronto Wednesday, August 17, 2011. (Darren Calabrese For The Globe and Mail)

usual suspects

NHL losing the war on social media Add to ...

Perhaps NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was having a bad day. Asked about the criticism on social media over NHL labour tactics, Daly said negotiating a new collective agreement (CBA) is still Job 1. “We do not intend to abdicate that responsibility in reaction to uninformed ramblings on Twitter,” he said in an e-mail.

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Ah, the uninformed ramblings on Twitter, the fifth column of the NHL lockout. For those not scoring at home, Twitter did not exist in 2004-05. Facebook was a dating site. When Daly needed to herd the cats of public opinion last time, he needed only to round up the usual suspects of mainstream media, many of whom were NHL broadcasters or sponsors.

Now, as it orchestrates another controversial lockout narrative, the NHL is faced with a massed choir of players, agents, journalists, statisticians, humorists, cranks, idlers and outright liars vying for the last word on how the NHL is doing. To say nothing of sarcastic Taiwanese cartoonists, seen on YouTube.

Daly has estimated, “I think opinion on Twitter is 50-50 for the NHL/NHLPA.” Nice try. Almost everyone concedes that, because of social media, the NHL is running uphill in this PR battle compared to the lost season of 2004-05.

One day’s harvest on social media reveals NHL Lockout: 15 Reason Why Hockey Fans Hate Gary Bettman (Bleacher Report), 9 Ideas for NBC To Replace the NHL (because we couldn’t get to 10) on Awful Announcing and threats to boycott NHL sponsors on YouHaveTwoWeeks.com.

On Twitter, Anaheim star Teemu Selanne is calling Daly’s boss Gary Bettman “the most hated man in hockey.”

Lockout accounts have sprouted like mushrooms: @stopthelockout2012, @against lockout, @nolockouthockey, #becauseitsthelockout ... the list is long.

“The 2004-05 lockout was the catalyst for hockey’s digital media revolution,” notes Greg Wyshynski, who blogs as Puck Daddy. “When the media here in the U.S. stopped covering hockey for roughly a year, fans started writing their own ‘beats’ on blogs, attracting an audience and continuing that work long after the NHL reopened its press boxes.

“Instead of waiting for ESPN to give the lockout its customary 23 seconds of news before giving Barry Melrose the floor for his ‘drunk uncle at the wedding’ analysis, hockey fans of every experience level and demographic can distribute and scrutinize the news of the day on Twitter – while also offering a suitable place to vent, frequently profanely.”

“Fans no longer have to wait for a talk-show host to put them on the air or a letter to the editor to be printed,” says Mitch Melnick, long-time radio host on TSN Radio 690 in Montreal. “The immediacy of a well-crafted tweet almost has the effect of putting you in the room when Gary Bettman reads them. And you know he reads them. If not originals then certainly via retweets... Whether they care or not is an entirely different matter.”

Have the sound and fury affected negotiations? The man who preceded Don Fehr as executive director of the NHLPA thinks so. “Twitter has changed the landscape since the last CBA negotiation in that every development in this standoff has gone viral almost instantly,” says Paul Kelly, now a sports lawyer in Boston. “Social media has also allowed the parties to attempt to shape public opinion directly and through surrogates, including players, agents, owners, friendly media sources and others.”

That has caused the NHL to scramble to appear sympathetic to the Internet voices. “We understood going into this that the landscape was going to be different with the prevalence of social media,” Daly has written. While Bettman has reportedly shuttered his own Twitter account, and the NHL’s own Twitter account has been mute on labour issues, NHLPA members aren’t being shy.

“Just wanted to send out big congrats to gray [sic] bettman on his 3rd consecutive work stoppage. Impressive stats for someone w no athletic skill,” tweeted John-Michael Liles of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Prospect Connor Carrick said, “The fact that bettman makes more money than most of the players actually in the league #Garbage I just really dislike the guy.” Minnesota’s Jason Zucker added, “This whole lockout thing is really making me mad! How does Bettman now have 3 lockouts under his name? Common denominator here! #NoLockout.”

Don’t look for the online rhetoric to cool soon. It won’t much change the NHL’s bargaining tactics, but the hatin’ will make the postlockout reconstruction that much more difficult than in 2005.

Playing the game

Social media are also instructive for catching up. Former Philadelphia Flyer Orest Kindrachuk popped up, talking about his concerns that the lockout might hurt the game. “Both sides should “do what’s good for the game,” Kindrachuk said.

Though they were economically strip-mined by the NHL and their union leader Alan Eagleson for decades, it’s quaint to hear retired players still talk about what’s good for the game.The NHL is about the game the way American Idol is about the singing.

Time heals all

Whenever Hockey Night In Canada resumes, it will do so with Glenn Healy back in tow. Healy has re-upped as analyst, studio with the Corp through the end of the CBC’s contract with the NHL in 2014. Healy declined to confirm the news with Usual Suspects but sources say that no one could guarantee the profile Healy will get on CBC – particularly at playoff time – with Mike Milbury now departed.

Healy’s contract will run out at the same time as those of Ron MacLean and Don Cherry. When CBC finds out if it can retain all or some of the national TV package it will decide how many of them it can bring back in 2014.

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