by Rick Stephens, AllHabs.net

MONTREAL, QC.– Social media has changed the way we communicate. It’s also had a tremendous impact on the way information is disseminated — in the world of sports journalism it has turned things topsy-turvy. New media types can have an equal, or in some instances greater, influence than the traditional folks.

In our own backyard, an aptitude with social media, and a compelling message, has allowed All Habs to put together a world-wide network connecting passionate fans of the Montreal Canadiens.  Twitter followers of @All_Habs number almost 39,000.

So far be it from me to bite the hand that feeds us, but allow me to weave a tale of prudence.

My word of caution and responsibility is primarily directed to prospects of the Montreal Canadiens who have now crossed that line into the public realm. Their messages are no longer being read by only friends or family members. This form of communication comes with new rules, some of which are still evolving, but require the young athletes to have a sharpened awareness of how their words may impact others and the organization that they represent.

I know what you are thinking — this is all a bit too general. Perhaps it would be helpful to look at the emergence of Twitter in the domain of sports to help our understanding.

As helpful or as innovative as technology is, it doesn’t get the mainstream label of “cool” until it’s adopted and promoted by celebrities. Twitter got noticed back in 2009 when Ashton Kutcher became the first user to have more than one million followers. Since then pop stars Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber have surpassed the 10 million follower mark.

In sports, Shaquille O’Neil was an early adopter — his retirement in June of this year was announced via Twitter. Lance Armstrong seemed to be equally committed to cycling and documenting his race through Twitter even details of a crash in the eighth stage of the 2010 Tour de France.

With respect to the landscape of the Montreal Canadiens, Mike Cammalleri had the attention of fans almost all to himself for a half season having joined during the playoff run of 2010. Cammalleri has done some interesting things tweeting behind-the-scenes photos and recently engaging Twitter followers in a Q & A session.

For athletes, they can bypass the media and deliver their message directly to their supporters. Fans appreciate the seemingly one-on-one access. It’s a perfect marriage of sports hero, adoring public and technology — or is it?

If you have been on Twitter you have been exposed to athletes being constantly pestered for a retweet or a follow. And it’s not just from the fans. One well-known Montreal newspaper hack sent a self-promoting tweet (complete with signature) to PK Subban when he joined Twitter in the hopes of getting a follow.

After an initial period of openness, for the most part, athletes revert to tweeting homogenized messages similar to the cliched remarks they provide reporters in the locker room. They have to, or occasionally find themselves doing damage control.

Ask Dan Ellis. Whining about money and the resulting backlash chased the Anaheim goaltender from Twitter. Tweets expressing sympathy for Osama Bin Laden landed Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall in all sorts of hot water.

Twitter is an open communication tool. For every fan expressing adoration there a several who have unkind things to convey. After his season-ending injury, the Canadiens Max Pacioretty was exposed to all sorts of vile messages of hate from ignorant Bruins fans.

Sometimes, when comments cross the line, players strike back.

Recently former Habs player Brent Sopel announced on Twitter that he had signed a two-year deal to play in the KHL. One user immediately launched into a disturbing barrage of criticism for Sopel ending with “I hope his plane crashes en route to Russia.” Sopel didn’t mince words, replying “GO F**K YOURSELF! I HAVE KIDS”

Many hockey fans applauded Sopel’s outburst — partly approving the defenseman’s bluntness in standing up for himself.  But it was more than that.  NASCAR fans wait through seemingly endless numbers of laps as race cars predictably navigate an oval until a crash occurs — Twitter users wade through hours of tedious tweets from followees and melba toast comments from athletes waiting for a ‘Sopel moment.’

One of those unscripted moments happened in June during the NHL Entry Draft. With the 17th pick overall, the Montreal Canadiens selected Nathan Beaulieu. Many fans and journalists didn’t realize that despite the name, Beaulieu was an anglophone from Strathroy, Ontario.

After receiving comments and questions in a language he couldn’t understand, Beaulieu responded like a typical teenager on Twitter with a blunt message to the Canadiens fanbase saying that he didn’t speak French. The problem is that once he pulled the jersey over his head, and wore the CH on his chest, he was no longer a regular teenager. He was a first-round draft choice of the most-storied franchise in hockey.

Shortly after his minor gaffe (and presumably after some coaching from the Canadiens communications staff) Beaulieu’s tweet was deleted and replaced with a much more politically-correct version: “To all MTL fans, my name in (sic) Beaulieu, but I can’t speak french, but my plan is to learn asap.”

The santitized version may not be as desirable as the gut-response statements that some fans crave. But where does the line get drawn? And who draws it?

In introducing this piece I used the words prudence, awareness and responsibility that should be adopted by the Canadiens young prospects to guide them in their use of social media. They must be aware that they have been given an opportunity of which few can dream but with that opportunity comes responsibility.  Some may feel that the team has a role to play in guiding players.

My friend, HabsWatch and I discussed this tonight as a drama played itself out publicly on Twitter. On the surface, it was a young girl who had apparently caught her boyfriend cheating — angry words were exchanged. But this wasn’t just any teenage couple, it was the Canadiens future defenseman Beaulieu and his girlfriend Kyla.

One of the harshest tweets was deleted but what remained signalled that Kyla was not happy writing “you are dead to me” and “Truth comes out !!!! Seeee yaaa” For Nathan’s part, he used the Anthony Weiner defense claiming that his girlfriend’s phone had been compromised.

Whatever the truth is, Beaulieu must start acting like a professional. There is a trend towards self-expression to a degree without any filters particularly among teenagers but Beaulieu and all young prospects must realize that spotlights are already on them, and not all of them are friendly. As HabsWatch wrote, “Want to earn the millions teams have invested in them? Start acting like an adult and work on a pro mentality, beginning draft day.”

Beaulieu is certainly the most high-profile of the prospects so extra attention will be paid to him. But the advice about acting like a pro applies to everyone. As a potential future goaltender of the Canadiens Peter Delmas probably shouldn’t be tweeting “i’d like to bend her over and show her the 50 states if u know what i mean.”

Despite their young age, there are a few prospects who seem to understand that they can no longer freely broadcast the way their friends do. Morgan Elllis and Robert Mayer tweet in a responsible way apparently realizing who their audience is and who they represent.

Communication, sports coverage and the access to athletes is undergoing a fundamental change. The purpose of presenting examples is not to expose any athlete but to ignite a discussion about what is and what is not appropriate in this new paradigm. Do we really want to see the lives of our sports heroes play out in a sort of reality series through social media?

This article will likely yield debate from those who would like more access into the private lives of all Canadiens players vs. those who worry about tarnishing the image of the players and the brand of the hockey club. Help add to the discussion by sharing your views in the comments section below.

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To keep track of Montreal Canadiens players and prospects who use Twitter, be sure to follow our list at @All_Habs.

  • Very interesting situation that you raise with this article and in delves into the gray area of where exactly to draw the line of privacy for a pro sports athlete.

    The problem with Twitter is it’s SEEMINGLY unobtrusive and somewhat guarded structure. I believe that many newbies (if you will) believe they are somewhat protected by what happens on the platform much unlike Facebook. I don’t think they truly understand just how accessible their tweets directed to specific people (esp. when they push for us to follow those specific people).

    A lot of players have Facebook accounts that are well hidden using available privacy controls and at the end of the day are protected by the player himself in accepting or declining ‘friend requests’.

    Twitter is a different animal altogether. The whole point of twitter is to gain as many followers as possible and the downfall here is that with every new follower you increase the chances that someone who follows you will disagree with something you end up tweeting. It’s a tricky road.

    Also, as you become more and more popular, those around you will want you to help them get more followers. So by doing your friends/girlfriend/etc a favor and helping them gain some of your followers, you’re effectively giving them a direct line of communication with your own followers or fans.

    Rick and Habswatch are correct though in that some sort of guidance should come from Habs management. But that guidance shouldn’t come in the form of censorship. Simple guidelines would be smart:

    – Avoid discussing politics / religion / money
    – Avoid exposing your inner circle to the outside
    – When in doubt (call person X in the PR Dept and run it by them).
    – Etc.

    That doesn’t mean that your twitter account has to be as clean as a whistle either. Just look at the Paul Bissonette’s account.

    What I don’t want to see is for a player to have an ‘official’ twitter account that has everything run through the organization and has no personality to it and then secretly have another account where he can be himself (unless that’s what the player himself wants to do).

    The team should stipulate that they hold the player to a higher standard here in Montreal and that they expect a certain professionalism out of them. They also need to allow a kid to be a kid and learn from his mistakes as he grows and matures into a man – protecting him while doing so. The best example of this that I can remember is when Bob Gainey defended the actions of Carey Price (in putting his arms up in the air during playoffs against Boston in that centennial year). Clearly, Bob knew Carey was wrong but just like a parent would defend his child, Bob defended Carey.

    With regards to the most recent involving Nathan and his girlfriend. My take is that the kid is very young and none of us knows the real story and no matter what it’s really none of our business. Regardless, there are a few lessons for him to learn and that’s what management should focus on (ie although you can control what you say but be careful what others can say about you). Is he learning those lessons at the rate that an 18/19 year old would? If so, great.

    If a player continuously screws things up and makes the organization look bad then I don’t think it should be up for the organization to continuously bail him out. It should be the writing on the wall to let the organization know that maybe this is not the type of player that has the right character to be in your dressing room.

  • This is an interesting case because it was Beaulieu’s girlfriend that started the online kerfuffle. It would be one thing to give a kid some PR coaching for today’s social web, but if his inner circle is already in, what reach do the Habs have to coach (censor) those people? Well I guess it appears that somebody has some reach, hence the “compromised phone” excuse (LOLZ)!

    A player has to be honest with themselves. If they lack the maturity, or if the inner circle that has access to them lacks it, then that player needs to carefully assess (or reassess) whether or not they should stay on twitter and other social media sites.

    The key is not just teaching the players about interaction in the new social media age, but about being a professional and an adult, period.

    A lot of people want twitter to be the portal to which all is revealed for athletes and celebrities. That’s not realistic. The players need to be responsible, and hopefully the fans can get a little bit of social media fatigue and ease off their appetite. There’s no need to have everything revealed. These people are not our friends. It’s great to have channels that help us identify with our “heroes”, but the greatest Hab of all time didn’t have the luxury of the internet or 24/7 sports media. He let his work and his off-ice conduct endear himself to the people. Players should take note; there are no short cuts these days, especially in social media.

  • Young prospects that go on to become high draft picks often struggle to fully comprehend and embrace the fact they become a brand from the moment they don an NHL jersey. Everyone’s watching everything they do, particularly their team and potential sponsors. It’s business. Very big business.

    Because teams potentially have millions invested in these kids, they offer media training and counseling from their security personnel on the risks of being a rich young kid with a whole lot of people who suddenly want to become their friend. Fast money, new friends, temptation and pressure at a time when they still think it’s cool to say literally anything that’s on their mind. Those days are over.

    It’s not really about Beaulieu and what may or may not have happened between his girlfriend because to be perfectly blunt, his Twitter timeline reads like a 15 year old and was already raising eyebrows. His job, the same as any other high round draft pick, is to start the process of growing up and beginning the process of learning what it takes to be a professional.

    Natural talent got them this far but there’s a very good reason why just 55% of first round draft picks taken 10-20 go on to play enough games to earn an NHLPA pension. Professionalism or lack thereof.

    Part of the process is careful consideration who remains or becomes a friend. They are your insulation. The trusted entourage. There’s no limit what some will do to get close to popular, wealthy people in the limelight and Habs fans don’t need to think very hard to recall names of past prospects and players who allowed the wrong people to enter or remain in their inner circle.

    It’s not about censorship, it’s about self-editing and managing their brand so when it comes to social media, best to pretend they’re in front of a camera with thousands of people hanging off every word… because they are. Learning how to be a pro starts now.

  • I don’t think any of Beaulieu’s tweets were out of line in any way. Delmas’ is pretty intense for twitter though, I don’t think even Biznasty would be that blunt.

    I find it hard to believe anyone would be outraged by the Beaulieu thing from the other day, I mean let’s be realistic. An 18 year old kid just out of high school gets drafted to the NHL by the most storied franchise in hockey history, do people expect girls to NOT be throwing themselves at him? I’m sure Kyla’s a nice person, but from what I remember about the good hockey players in high school, she probably shouldn’t have been surprised either.

  • Chantal

    A little FYI to all of you, since he’s been cited as an example in your comments; BizNasty’s account is in fact monitored. Every tweet he sends out has to be approved by some PR guy ( specifically hired for this purpose ). Just imagine if he had Carte Blanche.

    As for Nathan, since i don’t follow his girlfriend/ex-girlfriend, i didn’t witness any of this drama. But if i had, my reaction would have been : He’s just a kid.

    As for athletes and social media in general, i appreciate the ones that are themselves ( or seem to be ). Whether they choose to interact with fans or not is their decision ( or their respective organization’s guidelines i assume ) but the ones that do get extra points in my books. Especially when they tweet or answer questions to the young fans. Being a kid today and getting a tweet from my favorite hockey player would make me the happiest little girl alive, at least for a few days. As for others who mainly use their account to promote their sponsors or whatever site or product they invest in, i lose interest fairly quickly. Show a little personnality !

    It will be interesting to see if some sports teams one day prevent their athletes from using this type of social media.. A Dry Twitter Island if you will.. and how guys will respond to this.

  • Rookie

    I realized something about Twitter not long after I joined: Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to see retweeted, repeated, or thrown back in your face, or anything you wouldn’t say out loud to your followers.

    Simple as that. If someone in the public eye hasn’t realized this yet, then they should. If they’re OK with everything they say online, then so be it.

  • Stevo

    I do agree that teams need to do more in general to not only coach their young players on the ice, but off the ice as well.

    Let’s be realistic though, as far as i’m aware, nobody in Habs’s management or front office has a twitter account. Social media has exploded so fast in the last few years, that I don’t think, in Montreal’s case, that the team quite has grasped the concept or the impacts of it yet.

    I do believe it’s in their interest to start looking at this, and seeing how they can ‘help’ the players within the organization, remain themselves, and be free to express their thoughts, but in a fashion that is professional and reflective of the organization they represent.

    As far as the exchange between Beaulieu and his girlfriend, or the supposed compromised phone, i’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and hope he’s learned from it.

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