P.K. Subban, Canadiens tops among Twitter's NHL fans

Canadian hockey fans are more interested in the off-ice activities of players like Montreal's P.K. Subban than they are the NHL teams they play for, according to new data released by Twitter on Thursday morning.

Off-ice activities move needle on social media

P.K. Subban's exploits both on and off the ice always seem to draw fans' attention on Twitter. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

It's all about that personal touch when it comes to the NHL and Twitter.

Canadian hockey fans are more interested in the off-ice activities of their favourite players than they are the NHL teams they play for, according to new data released by Twitter on Thursday morning.

The social network compiled the top 10 tweets by players on Canadian NHL teams, the most popular NHL teams by mentions and retweets and other data to mark the halfway point of the hockey season. The information collected makes it clear: fans care about the personal lives of players like Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban, but turn to the official team accounts for info on the games themselves.

"Good results are going to get more hits, yes, but there are many ways to find out what the score is or stats on your favourite player," said Mike Naraine, a faculty member and PhD candidate in sport management at the University of Ottawa who specializes in social media. "But adding that extra piece is invaluable to creating that buzz and engaging fans. Whether it's the teams adding pictures and videos or the players talking about their personal lives and talking about their off-ice activities, those are the types of things that people want to see."

Subban's tweet of a video where he and sponsor Air Canada created a winter wonderland for patients at Montreal's Children's Hospital was shared more than 11,000 times. That was more than five times as many retweets as the second most popular tweet — Vancouver Canucks forward Brandon Prust calling out New Jersey Devils forward Bobby Farnham for grandstanding after a fight.

Prust's was the only tweet directly related to an NHL game cracked the top 10. Otherwise, it was all off-the-ice activity that caught fans' attention, like Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson paying his respects to Cpl. Nathan Cirillo on the anniversary of his death, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri supporting the Toronto Blue Jays in their post-season push, or Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau tweeting about his and his teammates' love of the reality show The Bachelor.

"The research on social media and sport, particularly with respect to athletes, illustrates that fans want to feel more connected to their athletes," said Naraine. "They want to feel that sense of attachment and social media provides that vehicle that allows you to connect with these athletes on a level unlike any other."

Notably, two of the top four tweets by NHLers on Canadian teams related to charitable causes.

Subban's video tweet about his work with the children's hospital was No. 1 and an appearance by Edmonton Oilers rookie phenom Connor McDavid for JumpStart, a charity sponsored by Canadian Tire that gives sports equipment to financially challenged children, also garnered hundreds of retweets.

"Something that has a charitable or social good element has a greater chance of building an emotional connection with a follower on Twitter," said Chelsea Orcutt, director of strategy and outreach for Thunderclap, a company that specializes in helping non-profit organizations spread their message online. "It makes it more likely that they'll want to retweet that or share that because they say they agree with what that person's sharing or they were inspired by what they're doing."

The Canadiens are Canada's most mentioned NHL team on Twitter so far this season, while the rival Leafs are second and the Oilers third. It's the reverse for which team has gained the most followers, with Toronto leading the way followed by Montreal and the Canucks.

Naraine notes that a team's on-ice performance doesn't necessarily reflect its online popularity.

"You can still spin sub-par performances to get likes, retweets and shares particularly with memes and Vines," said Naraine. "When we see the most new Twitter followers for Canadian teams and we see the Leafs up there, that's just proof in the pudding that just because you have a poor performance doesn't mean that you can't leverage social media to activate your engagement with your users. Content is always king."

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