Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Tweet Heard Round the Hockey World

It doesn't take much to start a fight in the game of hockey. In this electrifying, fast-paced sport, sticks fly, gloves come off and blows are exchanged with startling regularity and among the game's 'enforcers' penalty minutes earned are as much of a status symbol as goals scored.

However, in the opening game of the Western Conference quarter-final series between the Los Angeles Kings and the Vancouver Canucks, the on-ice spectacle paled in comparison to the social media theatrics that went on immediately after the game. Following the Kings' 4-2 defeat of the heavily favoured Canucks on Wednesday, the following tweet appeared in the LA team's Twitter feed, prompting an angry backlash from Vancouver fans - and a flurry of media coverage and SM activity by hockey fans everywhere:

"To everybody in Canada outside of BC, you're welcome."

For any Canadian who hasn't been living in a cave for the past year, this message requires no explanation. For the benefit of international readers, however, here's a bit of background. The last game of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, in which Vancouver suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Boston Bruins, was followed by the worst riot in the city's history. In spite of the best-laid plans by Vancouver police (who were prepared for unrest following similar riot in 1994), the June 15 riot quickly consumed the city's downtown core. In the end, some 140 people were injured (including nine police officers), at least four people were stabbed and 117 arrests were made. Property damage was estimated at around CA$4.2 million.

The riot - and the subsequent international media coverage of it - was a colossal black eye for a city that had previously been basking in the afterglow of the 2010 Winter Olympics. It also proved to be a reputational liability for Canada as a whole, a country that generally enjoys a worldwide reputation for being a peaceful society with a high level of public safety. Not surprisingly, this tweet provoked an immediate angry backlash from Vancouver fans, as well as a flurry of discussion in print media and SM networks over whether the LA Kings' social media team had crossed the line.

In the end, the winning team's head office issued an apology for the inflammatory tweet. "We encourage our digital team to be creative, interactive and to apply a sense of humour whenever possible. To anyone who found it offensive we sincerely apologize,” said Kings' vice-president Mike Altieri in an email earlier today. However, some hockey fans defended the tweet, saying that this social media jab simply added to the tension of the series and was part and parcel of the team rivalry culture that has long defined the NHL. Others contended that the fans in Vancouver frankly deserved it.

One wonders why a sport that celebrates on-ice pugilism and venerates the game's greatest goons would be so sensitive to social media barbs like this one. Moreover, shouldn't the Kings be saying "you're welcome" to Vancouverites, who would be the ones to bear the biggest brunt should history repeat itself in its streets this year?

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