NHL vs. TikTok: Players find an 'addicting' outlet during the coronavirus pause

Brendan Gallagher is not a cop. He just plays one on TikTok.

The Montreal Canadiens winger has lip-synced a scene from "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" in which actor Andy Samberg's character, detective Jake Peralta, sings The Backstreet Boys' "I Want it That Way." He has cos-played as both Dwight Schrute and Jim Halpert-as-Dwight Schrute from "The Office." He has recorded a French lesson he gave himself through Google Translate, learning that "ton tonton tond ton thon" converts to"your uncle mows your tuna."

Gallagher hasn't played an NHL game in two months, as the league has its players self-quarantining since pausing the 2019-20 season on March 12 due to the coronavirus outbreak.

"I'm a little bored," he said, "which is why the videos are out there."

He has made 14 videos on the video-sharing social network during that time, gaining over 44,000 followers. "It's kind of addicting. I'm not going to lie," he said. "I started doing some of them. I did a couple more and a couple more, and I decided it's going to be what gets me through quarantine."

Or as New Jersey Devils defenseman Connor Carrick, another NHL player-turned-TikTok creator, summarized it: Creativity and ingenuity tend to blossom in solitude and boredom.

"Honestly, I haven't run into an app that's so consuming, from the moment you open it," Carrick told ESPN. "Even if I'm of the age where it was a little frowned upon when I entered into TikTok. Kind of like when I was growing up, and our parents started getting on Facebook, and then it was time for everyone to get off of Facebook."

For those unfamiliar with the platform: TikTok features bite-sized videos, most of which are set to audio tracks ranging from popular songs to movie dialogue. There are choreographed dances, physical challenges, athletic feats, comedy bits, montages, testimonials, plentiful dogs -- if you can film it, chances are there's a TikTok featuring it. Forbes reports that the app has over 800 million users worldwide, ranging from teens in their bedrooms to influencers peddling sponsored content to celebrities like Lizzo (6.8 million followers).

And, increasingly, professional hockey players.

In addition to Gallagher and Carrick, dozens of NHLers have posted TikToks during the NHL's paused season, including Brenden Dillon of the Washington Capitals; Nathan Beaulieu of the Winnipeg Jets; Keith Kinkaid, currently with the AHL's Charlotte Checkers; Ivan Provorov of the Philadelphia Flyers; former NHL defenseman Kevin Bieksa; Jack Campbell of the Toronto Maple Leafs; J.T. Brown of the Minnesota Wild; Matt Luff of the Los Angeles Kings; Tomas Tatar, Ryan Poehling and Joel Armia of the Montreal Canadiens; Mathieu Joseph of the Tampa Bay Lightning; and Miles Wood and P.K. Subban of the New Jersey Devils.

That's not even counting the videos ported over to the platform from Instagram, via both official NHL team accounts and the NHL's own TikTok feed, which has 874,000 followers.

It's not just players, either. Referee Wes McCauley did a dance video with his family. NHL mascots have gotten in on the act. The Philadelphia Flyers' ubiquitous Gritty has 98,000 followers. Stanley C. Panther of the Florida Panthers has 31,000. The performer behind that character told ESPN that a presentation by the NBA's Benny the Bull at a mascot conference "showed the demographic was mostly kids, and human kids are my people," so TikTok was a natural fit.

Subban also noted that TikTok is very much for the kids, something he has learned as a content creator.

"I don't know if TikTok is a sign of me getting old, but it's hard to keep up with TikTok," said Subban, who has posted 15 videos, many of them featuring fiancée Lindsey Vonn as they self-quarantine. "There's a lot of things going. There's a lot of time that needs to be dedicated to doing those videos. I don't know if I have the time to consistently bang out content that people are going to love like some of these kids are doing. It's really entertaining.

"I'm one of those people that loves to scroll through TikTok and get a laugh. I could do that for an hour or two. But as far as making those videos, it takes a lot of time and you have to get into a rhythm for it. So I feel like the younger you are, the more time and energy you have for it."

That's true for Bieksa, too. The former Vancouver Canucks and Anaheim Ducks defenseman joked that he was "kind of bullied" into TikTok by his 11-year-old daughter, Reese.

"It started off where my daughter would do this all the time, and I liked it because she's running around the house, she's doing all these dances. It's really active, right? She's breaking a sweat doing it, she's putting all of this effort thinking about creative ideas, and I'm like, that's pretty cool. And then next thing you know, I get involved in one of them. And then next thing you know, like that one does pretty good. Then now every day she's like, 'OK Dad, what time do we do our TikTok?' And I'm like, 'Well, I don't know.' And then it's like, 'Oh, you don't love me anymore.' It's just peer pressure to TikTok with her every day," he said.

Bieksa got so into it that he started posting TikToks on his own account, which has over 6,300 followers, including one in which it appears he's flying on a broom during a game of Quidditch, along with several dance videos.

"I did a couple on my own account by myself, and she didn't like that,"he said. "So now, I can't do them on my own account, I have to wait and do them on her account. But she's the kind of person where, we're doing TikTok together and she'll go and angle the phone, so it's looking at all of her and like only half of my body. She just wants me to be in the background for her. She wants the full spotlight.

"But you know what? It's an unbelievable thing to do with her because to hear her laugh and giggle when I try to dance or do it or do some sort of rap is priceless. That's why I do it. I do it because she has so much fun. I'm not the best dancer. I do stupid stuff. And she laughs out loud. And it's so fun to do with her."

Dillon said his TikTok participation began like many others have: through consumption.

"When you spend two to three weeks in a hotel, there are only so many puzzles and Netflix series you can do. I don't wanna throw any of the guys under the bus from the Capitals, but TikTok was something that was around pregame meals. Guys were scrolling through and checking them out. By the end of it there, next thing I knew I'd be brushing my teeth in the morning and busting out something in front of the mirror," he said.

During self-isolation, Dillon did the "Dip and Lean Challenge" with his fiancée, Emma Wittchow. "She roped me into it. Man, did that take off quick," he said.

Of course, with added attention comes occasional ridicule. "I think it's probably gonna have to be my last, with the amount of chirps I took from the guys and friends back home," Dillon said.

Gallagher, for one, welcomes the scorn. "The guys like making fun of me, which I'm never against," he said.

As his on-ice reputation might indicate, Gallagher is a fan of dishing out the embarrassment, too. Like forcing a teammate to perform a humiliating dance on TikTok after losing a wager.

Gallagher bet teammate Nick Suzuki that he could sink an "impossible" shot: sitting at the top of a staircase, throwing a pingpong ball into an open metal water bottle. He posted one day's worth of failed attempts, featuring fits of anger. He posted another video, set to the Herb Brooks speech from "Miracle," that showed him making the impossible shot possible.

Suzuki, who has 4,775 followers, paid the debt by posting himself begrudgingly doing the chicken dance.

"He handled it pretty good. It took a lot of courage. I'll give it to him. He has more courage than I do," Gallagher said. "I think I would have put up a bigger fit. Might have negotiated my way out of dancing."

Canadiens teammate Tomas Tatar has been amused by Gallagher's TikTok output. "I think what he's doing is hilarious. He's doing a great job," Tatar told ESPN. "It's important to stay in touch with fans. We're all in this together. Once we're out of touch with the rink and with the media, fans don't have a chance to see what the players are doing. I'm just trying to have fun. Be in touch with our fans."

It's that connection with fans that surprised Carrick about TikTok. The Devils defenseman and his wife, Lexi, have created 12 videos during the NHL's pause, including a humorous poke at Subban:

Carrick's been known to have a serious side. His new show, the"Connor Carrick Podcast,"frequently traffics in intense conversations about mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing. TikTok is a place to goof off with lighthearted fun, and yet Carrick said "some of the feedback there has been really captivating and super powerful."

For example, Carrick received a direct message on the platform from a caregiver to a teenage boy with autism in Columbus, Ohio. When the boy accomplishes things in life, part of his reward is to write letters to his favorite people -- Carrick being his favorite NHL player. She shared a letter written in purple marker from the young fan, expressing his admiration for Carrick and carrying a request: "Make a video where you give 'boops' to Hoagie," the Carricks' French bulldog.

"I had no idea what he was talking about," Carrick said.

A quick online search later, and Carrick was giving "boops" on the nose of his pooch, and tagging the boy in the TikTok video.

"I was tearing up reading this letter, honestly. So I ended up making the 'boops' TikTok and I get a letter back saying that he was so happy and watching the video for 15 straight minutes, laughing," Carrick said. "I deal with some heavier subjects on my podcast. To know that he was out there laughing for 15 minutes because of something that took me 30 seconds to do was really special. It's the kind of impact that, as an athlete, you might forget about."

When the NHL returns to the ice, many of these players might forget about TikTok. "Once they let me outside, I'll probably be retiring from the TikTok game," Gallagher said.

While their participation on the platform might be as fleeting as a 30-second video, the Internet never forgets.

"There's going to be some embarrassed NHL players when we get back and they're playing 'Captain Serious Game Face' after practice, and then someone asks them about their dancing video six weeks ago," Carrick said with a laugh. "But I think it's great. Anytime you have this kind of catastrophe, it really breeds a 'why not?' mentality."

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