Tweeting the tricolore
Tweeting the Bleu, Blanc Rouge: Habs fans of all stripes have their say
Habs fan Jean-François Duhamel tweets while watching Thursday night’s playoff game between the Canadiens and the Bruins at the Peel Pub in Montreal.
Photograph by: Marie-France Coallier, The Gazette
MONTREAL - As hockey fandom goes into overdrive during the NHL playoffs, Twitter plays a growing role in bringing together Canadiens enthusiasts — including politicians and celebrities — and influencing the discussion beyond cyberspace
Twitter has changed the hockey world and it has most certainly changed the Habs world.
You don’t believe me? Let me present as evidence the tweet heard around the world. That would be the less-than-140-character missive sent out by Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre — a serial Habs tweeter — in November.
Coderre infamously tweeted: “Hello? Can we get a one-way ticket to Hamilton for David Desharnais please …”
He was suggesting the Canadiens send the diminutive Habs centre down to its American Hockey League farm team, the Hamilton Bulldogs. This was back when Desharnais was struggling big-time, with just one assist and a minus-two rating after 17 games.
The tweet ignited no small amount of anger, from fans and from friends of Desharnais — even including Boston Bruins star Patrice Bergeron. Many rightly noted that while it was one thing for Habs fans to tweet something like that, it was quite another for the mayor of Montreal to beat up on a Canadiens player in a social-media forum.
The two angriest people were Desharnais himself and his good pal — and Habs linemate — Max Pacioretty. After making it clear through the media that they were mad as hell, they then got even — both players came to life in the days following that tweet and went on to have stellar seasons.
Did the Coderre tweet turn around the Habs’ season? That might be an exaggeration, but the incident does underline the new-found power of Twitter in the hockey universe. That tweet generated stories in media across North America, and I’d bet you there aren’t many Habs fans here who didn’t hear about it.
In 2014, Twitter — and to a lesser extent, other social-media platforms such as Facebook — is a huge part of hockey culture and that is only heightened during the playoffs. The amount of tweeting has increased exponentially as the Habs-Bruins second-round series kicked off this week.
Hockey reporters live-tweet not only the Canadiens games but also the practices. Before the team has finished its morning skate, we Twitter addicts already know that Travis Moen has been added to the fourth line in place of Michaël Bournival. Donald Beauchamp — senior vice-president (communications) for the Canadiens — told me that team staff monitor Twitter activity during practices and they brief coach Michel Therrien about it before he meets reporters afterward.
But the biggest Twitter draws are, of course, the games. Seevibes, a Montreal company that tracks social-media activity, reports that there are 150,000 Habs-themed tweets on an average game day, including 100,000 during the game itself.
In the old days, you watched the game in your living room or basement with whomever else happened to be there.
Now anyone, whether watching the game at home or at the bar, can share that experience with hundreds if not thousands of others on Twitter and Facebook. For many of us, it’s no longer enough just to pump our fists in the air from the couch — and maybe knock over our mug of beer — when P.K. Subban scores the overtime winner. Now, we immediately take to our smartphones and share that joy with like-minded fans.
“It’s the virtual tavern table, isn’t it?” said longtime CHOM morning-man and frequent Habs tweeter Terry DiMonte.
“If you have 300 followers or you’re following 300 people, it’s a virtual Magnan’s on Saturday night at 8 o’clock, where everybody has an opinion and everyone has a different take on it,” said DiMonte.
“I think as long as you keep that in mind and you don’t become a Twittiod, as I like to refer to them, and start to rain down the personal vindictive s--t,” he said.
“I always get a chuckle when there’s some guy from the South Shore or St-Laurent who will pontificate about how Therrien had the wrong line on with three minutes to play, as if us knuckleheads in the Twitterverse could coach the team.”
But DiMonte loves the virtual socializing over our favourite sports team … and the ability to connect directly with sports journalists.
“When I was a kid, my dad would bring The (Montreal) Star home and I’d read Red Fisher and read about the game (that took place) the night before,” said DiMonte. “Now, you can talk with Dave Stubbs and Brian Wilde and Pat Hickey and Pierre Houde.”
And it’s not only sports reporters who are within reach. During a game, anyone on Twitter can interact directly with fellow fans — be they strangers, politicians or celebrities. Popular Quebec actor Patrick Huard, who tweets a lot during games, was as stressed as anyone as the first game of the Habs-Bruins series went toward overtime.
“La moitié de mon sofa est mangé!” Huard tweeted. (“Half my couch has been eaten!”) A few minutes later, a fellow tweeter asked him if he was done eating the couch. His quick response: “I’ve started on the footstool!”
Twitter is also a place for fans of different teams to — hopefully politely — fight over bitter rivalries, like the long-running Bruins-Habs post-season battle. Quebec filmmaker Rafaël Ouellet — whose films have travelled the worldwide fest circuit — prefers to tweeting about hockey to tweeting about cinema, and he likes to stir it up by proudly proclaiming his support for the Bruins and disdain for the Habs.
“I have a real love for the Bruins and the Leafs, and I don’t like the Canadiens,” Ouellet said. “But I like being arrogant and a little bit cocky on Twitter. Every year, for every series, I say the Canadiens will lose in four. For me, it’s a way to make contact with people. I’m a bit cocky but it allows me to meet people and if I was just a fan of the Canadiens, I’m not sure I would’ve met all these people.”
Laurent Maisonnave, who runs the social-media tracking firm Seevibes, says sports are a major talking point on Twitter and that in Quebec, the top sports topic by far is the Habs. It only makes sense. According to Maisonnave, the biggest subject of conversation on Twitter, since it launched in 2006, has been television. And the social-media platform, with its real-time interaction and 140-character limit that lends itself to quick wit, lends itself to major live events that unfold on TV, such as entertainment awards shows, election nights and big sports games.
One of the things Seevibes does is provide television networks — including RDS and TVA Sports — with demographic information about the people on Twitter who are watching their shows, which in turn helps the networks develop marketing strategies and sell their shows to advertisers.
And the sports networks and sports TV shows are paying a lot of attention to social media. They all have some kind of Twitter component to their shows, whether it’s scrolling the Twitter addresses of their personalities on the screen during Hockey Night in Canada panels or answering questions posed by people on Twitter during the RDS hockey broadcasts.
They also all have their own Twitter accounts, from the CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada to RDS’s L’Antichambre, to beat the promotional drum for their shows.
The staff at the networks are also closely monitoring Twitter. If something blows up in social media, they need to know about. What Twitter has changed is the speed at which stories break. Take the example of Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean’s controversial comments during the first-round playoff series between Tampa Bay and Montreal last month, when MacLean said that francophone referees might be perceived to have a bias in favour of the Canadiens. Within seconds of him uttering these words, my Twitter timeline exploded with people expressing outrage over his comments.
In the pre-Twitter universe, that controversy might have begun the next day, perhaps encouraged by an incensed newspaper column. But thanks to the Twitterverse, controversy erupted immediately, and there’s no question all that chatter on social media was what forced MacLean to come out that very same night to issue an apology on CBC.
And Twitter can get ugly, too. After Subban’s overtime winner Thursday night in Game One of the Boston-Montreal series, there were a number of racist tweets from Boston fans targeting Subban.
But there’s more to our Twitter hockey culture than just negative backlash. I’ve always said that to use Twitter properly you have to be funny, and one of the most entertaining aspects of following Habs talk on Twitter is the humour. During Game 4 of the first-round Canadiens-Lightning series, Daniel Brière scored the opening goal after being the last Canadien to touch inspirational Oh Canada singer/team-lucky-charm Ginette Reno’s hand. Soon after, there were thousands of retweets of a photo montage that super-imposed Brière’s face onto a photo of Reno from the 1992 Quebec film Léolo. An image of the famed CH logo reconfigured with the initials GR in honour of Reno also went viral on social media.
The Canadiens organization itself is paying attention to all this action on Twitter. Team president Geoff Molson has a Twitter account, as does the team, and the Habs use social media as a key way to keep in touch with their fan base. Many of the Canadiens players also have accounts.
“We’re engaging with our fans,” said Canadiens chief operating officer Kevin Gilmore. “We’re speaking to them. They’re speaking back to us. They’re speaking with fellow fans. They’re sharing their thoughts. And it makes them all part of one giant Habs family. To me, it’s a big benefit to us. We can’t sell more seats. We’re lucky enough that we’re in a marketplace that’s extremely supportive of our team, even in bad times, and so the core of our business is very good. We’ve been sold out since 2004. So what do you do at that point? You have to look beyond those four walls and see how you can take your product and make it acceptable, available and engaging to fans outside those four walls, and digital platforms allow us to do that.”
Gilmore says Molson definitely takes seriously what he sees on Twitter.
“He’s very mindful of what fans say, and fans speak to him. It’s a great way for us to listen to the fans. You know that the fan who has taken time to address you on your social-media platform is a passionate fan, has a deep, emotional bond with our franchise, and what we do and how we do it is important to them. So you have to listen to that.”
But as many fans can attest, not all Habs banter is that enlightening. That’s the downside of hockey tweeting — in some ways it’s the 21st-century version of the open-line radio show, with all the good and bad that comes with that.
“People become rude very quickly,” said Louis Morissette, a Quebec producer, writer and actor best-known for working on the popular year-end TV show Bye Bye. “One-hundred and forty characters, three seconds after the event, there’s not much room for analysis. People maybe should take a bit more time (before asking) questions about the coach. We’re all coaches in our own living room.”
That’s exactly it. We’ve always all been coaches in our living rooms. But now our living room has become, in DiMonte’s words, “the virtual tavern table” and that back-seat coaching has gone viral.
For better or for worse.
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