A Unique View From The Bench

If you’ve seen a North Dakota women’s hockey game this season, you may or may not have noticed an interesting sight in the tunnel of Ralph Engelstad Arena: one of the team’s backup goaltenders, sitting in a chair facing the ice, huddled over a smartphone.

That goalie, usually redshirt freshman Annie Chipman, isn’t goofing off. She’s giving the 1,600 people who follow head coach Brian Idalski a unique view of the game – her own.

Chipman took over Idalski’s Twitter, @UND_WIH, in December 2014 after a conversation with teammates Lexie Shaw and Lisa Marvin in Marvin’s hospital room. In late November, the sophomore forward’s pickup had stalled on a Grand Forks road, and she was filling it up with gas when a speeding car hit her, resulting in serious injuries to her right arm and knee that may keep her from playing again for a long time. Her teammates visited her to chat and try to take her mind off of her long road to recovery.

“We were all just talking, trying to cheer her up, and we were like, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if we live-tweeted the games for you so you could stay updated?’” Chipman recalled.

Idalski overheard them and decided to give her the reins, allowing her to flood his timeline each gameday with goalie selfies, goal updates, and quirky observations like this one:

It’s an unusual sight to see for some; although the fans at the Ralph have caught on pretty quick, the sight of her on a phone while her teammates play has prompted some questions in visiting arenas.

Misunderstandings aside, both she and her coach say the feedback has been nothing but positive.

“A lot of people are saying how funny it is to follow along,” Chipman said, adding that fans will sometimes follow her tweets during games and wave at her from the stands.

“They make it their own,” Idalski said of his players using his Twitter account. “It’s been entertaining to see them let their personality shine through.”

The fact that UND is enjoying a good season — 16-11-3, 12-9-3-2 in the WCHA and riding a seven-game undefeated streak before losing to Minnesota Feb. 7 – also helps temper some of the concerns others might have about focus.

“If I were 10 years younger, I probably wouldn’t have understood it,” he said. “But I think it’s a credit to these kids’ maturity – they know what they have to do, they work hard, they have fun when it’s time to have fun and focus when it’s time to focus.”

A Twitter veteran compared to most coaches (he joined in 2009 and “embraced Twitter from the word ‘go’”), he also sees social media as way of getting to potential new players. The way Chipman uses it, he said, offers a more personal look at the program, separate from the official @UNDWHockey Twitter.

“Anyone who follows the Twitter gets a good sense of our program with regard to what goes on during game days,” he said. “With recruiting starting earlier and earlier, it’s a good way to get our brand out there.”

Branding has become increasingly important in the Information Age. Everyone is trying to distinguish themselves, and social media is a good way to do that. When it comes to hockey, some teams, like the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and Los Angeles Kings, have used humor to draw in followers and fans. Others have kept it cut-and-dry, posting recaps and highlights, which is serviceable if not distinctive. On both sides, for the most part, social media is seen as separate from the players themselves. So what about blending the two?

“I don’t know if anyone else would do that, really,” Chipman said. “At least not anyone running it now. Some people don’t get it. I think once a newer generation, like ours, comes in, we’ll see more of it.”

Still other organizations, such as most CWHL teams (with the exception of Calgary and possibly Toronto), are still trying to figure out Twitter and other social media platforms. The Inferno recently turned over their account to defenseman Jacquie Pierri, letting her give fans a day-in-the-life account of what players do, but most other teams stick to previews, recaps and promotion of their organizations and the league. Establishing a brand online is a crucial first step toward gaining exposure for these teams, due to the immediacy of the medium, and perhaps focusing more on the player perspective is a way of seeming more approachable to potential fans or even potential players.

UND has certainly achieved a good balance of straight coverage and player perspective, and it’s something Idalski is proud of.

“I don’t want to see other teams do the same thing,” he said. “Just let them keep doing the same boring thing they’re doing, and we’ll keep having fun doing it.”

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