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Connor McDavid emerged on St. Patrick’s Day from a sudden, unplanned hockey hibernation via video on his Twitter and Instagram feeds.

With his dog Lenny at his feet, McDavid urged his followers to stay at home in hopes of flattening the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Like a lot of you, I’m stuck inside practising my social distancing,” the Edmonton Oilers superstar said. “What one person does affects another. We all need to make sure we’re being safe and taking all the steps needed to stop the spread of this thing.”

The National Hockey League is indefinitely on pause, with no way of knowing when McDavid and his brethren will hit the ice again. But on social media, early signs indicate the players have no intention of going dark.

“Everyone is at home, and there’s a neat way for the players to bond with their fans,” says retired Edmonton Oilers defenceman Jason Strudwick, now a radio host on TSN 1260 Edmonton. “The smart players know that. We are captive. We have so much time, but really nothing to do. So, if [Washington Capitals captain] Alexander Ovechkin wanted to do a video on how he shoots so hard, I think he would have a million views within an hour.”

In the past week, New Jersey Devils defenceman P.K. Subban has posted a video of a workout with his fiancée, retired alpine skier Lindsey Vonn. Calgary Flames agitator Matthew Tkachuk, meanwhile, has talked via Twitter and Instagram about making TikToks with his sister, playing video games with his brother, watching TV shows and playing cards. New York Islanders captain Anders Lee also posted a video message to young hockey fans via his team’s Twitter feed.

“I know there are a lot of kids out there who have had their school years or youth sports put on hold,” Lee said. “Your teachers, your parents, your coaches – they all want what’s best for you, and that’s your health and their health.”

Tkachuk and Lee urged their followers to wash their hands, practise social distancing and stay at home. For many teens and young adults, those messages hold more weight coming from elite hockey players than from parents, teachers and other authority figures.

“The stereotypical male athlete is healthy, strong and you could even say brave,” says Bev Wake, who teaches a class on sports, media and audience at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C. “They’re showing that, right now, it’s okay to play it safe. It’s okay to be cautious about things. It’s okay to stay indoors. Being brave can mean different things at different times.”

The social media explosion of the past decade has dramatically changed the landscape for both hockey players and fans. Gone are the days when athletes were largely anonymous away from the rink, except for occasional dispatches from newspaper beat writers that perhaps revealed small snippets of who they were.

During the 2012/13 NHL lockout, many players communicated their side of the dispute directly with fans via Facebook, Twitter and the comments sections of news stories online.

Alex Sevigny, a communications professor at McMaster University, says those players greatly helped their cause in negotiations via their social media presence. And while a labour dispute and a pandemic are two different matters, the players are also wise to keep in contact with fans throughout this stoppage in play – no matter how long it lasts.

“In a social media universe, if you’re not in people’s mind – if you’re not part of their imagination during the day – you start to fade away as a member of their digital family,” he says. “It may make the fans feel like they’ve lost somebody, which is the opposite of what you want to do during a period of social distancing, where people might be feeling a little isolated.”

Under usual circumstances, charity events and philanthropic pursuits provide regular content for professional athletes with a strong social media presence. Given social distancing measures, players such as Dallas Stars defenceman John Klingberg are lending their support via virtual means.

Klingberg has donated a signed Winter Classic jersey to Fans can donate for a chance to win, with all proceeds going to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

“Athletes have a platform to do some really positive things,” Wake says. “It’s a way for them to show good citizenship.”

Before he retired in 2012, Strudwick avoided social media in order to protect his on-ice confidence. After all, players can now pick up their mobile phones after the final buzzer sounds on any game and read instant analysis – much of it cutting – from thousands of fans. With the season on pause, the situation has changed. Players can now venture out onto social media without the ever-present attacks on their recent performances.

“Now is the perfect time to connect,” Strudwick says. “I don’t know that everyone’s quite understanding the magnitude of the situation we’re in right now. But when you see younger people hearing about how to stay safe from their heroes – their idols in many ways – I think it really rings true and resonates strong.”

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