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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (right) speaks to a television reporter as he arrives for collective bargaining talks in Toronto on Wednesday, August 15, 2012. Negotiations continue between the NHL and the NHLPA to avoid a potential lockout. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (right) speaks to a television reporter as he arrives for collective bargaining talks in Toronto on Wednesday, August 15, 2012. Negotiations continue between the NHL and the NHLPA to avoid a potential lockout. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Usual suspects

NHL stickhandles through a new media world Add to ...

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced he’ll lock out the players on Sept. 15 if no new collective agreement is reached with the NHL Players’ Association. Since then, the intractability of both sides, the dollars involved and the grim drop-dead dates all point to a reprise of the disastrous 2004-05 lockout that resulted in no Stanley Cup being awarded for the first time since 1917.

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One distinct difference is that Bettman and the NHL would be locking out players in an era of social media. In 2004-05, there was no Twitter. Facebook was still a glorified dating service, and mainstream media were virtually the sole source of news. To control the message, the NHL needed only to threaten its owners and employees with $1-million fines and massage the media, many of which already had deals with the league for broadcast or promotional rights.

It’s a different landscape this time. Mainstream media are in full retreat on many fronts, emulating social media in an effort to monetize the new landscape. Bloggers who couldn’t get an e-mail answered by the NHL seven years ago are now respected sources. Information (dubious and real) is king, and the league ignores the Twitterverse and blogosphere at its peril.

Already, anti-lockout sites are springing up on Twitter and Facebook.

NoHockeyLockout.com (“Giving the Fans a voice to save our sport!”) and NHLexpertpicks.com are among the sites hammering the issue. The tone is anti-NHL.

There is also the voice of agents online. While many avoid using Twitter, Allan Walsh of Octagon is an avid tweeter. Describing himself as a “shameless self-promoter for my clients,” Walsh has been into Twitter from the start.

“I always believed it’s a game changer,” he said Monday. “Social media is an instantaneous flow of information that you can respond to immediately. Twitter has developed into a number of different aggregated communities. A Calgary Flames community. A Bruce Springsteen community. You can become part of that community immediately in real time and, like I do, discuss compelling issues of the day.”

Walsh knows that some worry his caustic criticism of Bettman might backfire. “I think it’s appropriate. If I ever cared about what other people thought, I wouldn’t be true to myself. I’m just one little twitter feed. They can follow me or they can disagree or unfollow me.”

He’s not above upbraiding the media. When Rogers analyst Mark Spector wrote that Bettman had never said that the last collective agreement would stabilize ticket prices, Walsh tweeted three Bettman quotes from 2005, including: “More than a majority of our teams would use the opportunity of economic stability to lower their ticket prices.”

Agent Ian Pulver @pulversports, a former employee of the NHLPA, also employs Twitter. When Bettman used “considerable gulf” to describe the differences between the sides, Pulver tweeted: “considerable gulf hmm. but lets keep phoenix on life support other weak sisters afloat... and ignore another team in ontario, quebec city and other places that can grow HRR ask Players to take less.”

Pulver tells Usual Suspects that Twitter is another tool “to disseminate and sometimes correct information that is out there. I don’t pretend to speak for the union, but if I can educate about the issues, then it’s a useful tool. In the end, my feeling is it will be the people in the room who decide the issues, not social media.”

CREDIBILITY GAP

The reliability of Twitter and some social media is a major issue. Most days, Twitter is many dining out on a few morsels. The list of insiders with real connections is short.

Recently, one NHL executive we spoke with decried how much of his time he wastes on anonymous posters. Often sources will discuss trade talks or free-agent signings that are pure fiction. “It will say I’m in talks with another team when I haven’t spoken to them for a month,” the source said. But others on Twitter, including mainstream media, pick up on the fake news. One or two news cycles can pass before the rumour is debunked. By then, another bogus story is perpetuated, this NHL source said.

Typical of the anonymous tweeters is @Hockeyinsiderrr. Its author contends he has worked for four NHL clubs and had insider information about a Roberto Luongo trade to Toronto, and free agent Zach Parise signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins while defenceman Ryan Suter would be joining the Detroit Red Wings. That sent mainstream media chasing for days.

The website Deadspin.com tracked the site to a 17-year-old in Beloeil, Que., who has never worked for any NHL clubs.

Sometimes, to know the tweeter means reading fine print. Ottawa’s Team 1200 personality Shawn Simpson urged players to give up and accept the NHL’s offer. “If I was the NHLPA, I would accept almost everything, except a rollback. … I’m working in media. I’m not taking a side. Just being realistic. The players have zero leverage, in a sport that’s ticket driven.”

According to Simpson’s Twitter bio, he works for more than the media. “Minnesota Wild consultant” is another of his credentials.

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