For the Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey coaching staff, April is typically its busiest month for recruiting. This year alone head coach Maura Crowell, associate head coach Laura Bellamy and assistant coach Ashleigh Brykaliuk were planning to hit up 12-15 cities across the globe in a span of 30 days.
“There’s been years when I’ve been home three to five days in April,” Bellamy said.
That wasn’t the case this spring thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left the Bulldogs coaches quarantined since mid-March like much of North America. And just like everyone else who is stuck at home, UMD’s coaches have spent a good portion of that time on social media, though their time has likely been much more productive than yours.
Crowell, Bellamy, Brykaliuk and hockey operations student assistant Anna Matzdorff have been hard at work creating new content for the UMD women's hockey accounts with weekly takeovers, skills videos and even a talk show.
Unable to meet with anyone face-to-face during the pandemic, social media is how the program is staying connected with the fans, as well as current, former and future players.
“We’re just trying to market ourselves as best we can,” Crowell said. “It’s a huge piece of the job, which is just kinda crazy. It’s also a great resource. If coaches aren’t using social media, I do think they’re falling behind.
“It’s how we recruit right now. It’s our lifeblood. We need to be paying good attention to what we’re doing out there and coming up with some creative ideas.”
Not wanting to spread itself too thin, the Bulldogs women’s hockey program is active on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, with Instagram having been the primary focus over the last few months, because that’s where the recruits are these days.
According to a fall 2019 study by Piper Jaffary in which 9,500 teens were surveyed, 85% used Instagram (which is actually owned by Facebook), followed by Snapchat at 81%. Both were more than double of the percentage that said they used Twitter or Facebook.
“Instagram is definitely the one that has the highest percentage of recruits and so that's sort of why that focus has been there,” said Bellamy, who along with Crowell just finished her fifth season at UMD. “A lot of people are interested in the program but (recruits are) the ones who might see something and have it affect the decision they make or what they're interested in.
“The recruiting process has a lot of elements to it, the most important of which are relationships. You can only improve those so much on Instagram, but it definitely helps.”
Brykaliuk, who is only 24 and just three seasons removed from her Bulldog hockey career, said that’s a big change from when she was being recruited out of Brandon, Manitoba, eight years ago. Social media wasn’t part of the process at all back then, she said.
It wasn’t until college that it became a larger part of her life, initially on Twitter before people starting shifting to Instagram.
“It’s very active now and cool to see,” said Brykaliuk, who has been filming simple stick-handling videos each week from her garage and posting them in the stories. “Social media gets a bad rap most of the time, but if you are smart about it and managing time — whether it’s on your phone or computer — there is a lot of good that can come out of it and tools, stuff to learn. It’s just finding a balance there and I think that’s what we’re trying to do, hopefully put out some stuff you can learn a few things from.”
The landing page for the UMD women’s hockey Instagram account — @umdwhockey — is itself a virtual tour of the program, featuring explorations of campus and the facilities at Amsoil Arena. It also highlights life on the road, gives a peek behind the curtains as to what it’s like to be a Bulldog via player takeovers — something that has continued during the pandemic on Saturdays — where followers can submit questions throughout the day.
The new video conference talk show hosted by Bellamy, dubbed ‘Lunch With Lu’, on the program’s Instagram TV channel offers another perspective via candid, casual interviews with other coaches and players. Crowell was Bellamy’s guest for the pilot, followed by former captain Jalyn Elmes and this week a quick-hitting episode with the team’s 2020-21 captains — Ashton Bell, Anna Klein and McKenzie Revering.
“Really, we can talk to recruits a lot, but what they want to get is sort of the experience,” Bellamy said. “Especially right now when they can't do visits, (Instagram) is a good way to kind of show them what UMD is like, what the program is like.
“Social media isn't all-powerful. It's not going to take care of every piece of recruiting, but it definitely adds to it along with phone calls we’re making and different meetings that we have.”
Camps head online
Like the recruiting scene, a number of UMD athletics teams have moved their annual summer camps online as well. The men’s basketball team announced a series of virtual skills camps this week that begin June 1 for kids in grades K-12.
The Bulldogs women’s hockey program has been posting a series of virtual skills camp sessions available for boys and girls through eighth grade as well this month, run by the same person conducting the stick-handling sessions on Instagram — Brykaliuk.
“She’s clearly got the best hands on the staff and can still challenge our current players for best hands on the team. There’s no one better,” Crowell said. “That’s part of using your platforms to promote what you have in your program to make it unique. We’re different than some other programs. We have the benefit of having someone like Bryk, so we want to use it.”
Both virtual camps tout simplicity. For the men’s basketball sessions, all you need is a ball and somewhere to dribble, like a driveway or garage. Some sessions require a hoop, some don’t.
Brykaliuk's camps and Instagram drills have also preached simplicity, since she, too, has no access to any ice, or much equipment. Her “studio” has been her garage.
“I’m fortunate to have a garage out back with some space. I try to keep it pretty simple — a ball and a couple pucks, maybe a second stick or something. Just a small area of space,” Brykaliuk said. “Maybe I’ll pick a theme for the day and just build some drills around it and go from there. It’s fun to do.”