The Messy Relationship Between Romance Novels and Ice Hockey

by Pelican Press
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The niche world of hockey romance novels is getting mainstream attention after the wife of an N.H.L. player criticized book fans who she said had made comments and videos on social media about her husband that were “predatory and exploiting.”

Here’s what happened when the worlds of professional sports, romance novels and TikTok collided.

First, there was BookTok.

On TikTok, people share book recommendations and reviews under the hashtag #BookTok, and the community has become a powerful force in publishing: More than 100 authors with large BookTok followings drove $760 million in sales in 2022, a 60 percent increase from 2021, according to Circana BookScan, which tracks print sales.

Romance is a big part of the BookTok universe, as is its popular subgenre hockey romance, which falls under the broader sports-romance category.

Recent hits have included Anna Zabo and L.A. Witt’s “Scoreless Game,” a love story between two longtime friends who are players on the fictional Pittsburgh Griffins. In “Overnight Sensation,” by Sarina Bowen, an office intern for the fictional Brooklyn Bruisers moves in with a player after leaving the condo she lives in with her father, the hockey league’s commissioner.

The success of these books has been credited with driving interest among readers in ice hockey, and some professional and collegiate teams have embraced this new audience.

In Australia, where ice hockey is not particularly popular, professional teams have credited BookTok with increasing game attendance and fan interest.

Sarah Bricknall, the events and media manager for the Melbourne Mustangs, told The Hills Shire Times, a Sydney newspaper, that 15 to 30 BookTok fans had been at every home game since the team joined TikTok in May.

How did things go wrong?

On the internet, the lines between fictional players and real-life ones can blur, especially when teams use BookTok to promote themselves.

A video posted to the Seattle Kraken’s official TikTok account that has since been archived showed Alex Wennberg, a center for the team, walking down a hallway in a suit with the text “when you accidentally become a booktok account & now that’s all you can post.”

Other posts by romance fans on BookTok have talked about a specific player as a stand-in for a favorite fictional hockey player or showed game footage overlaid with quotes from hockey romance books. A segment of these posts are sexually explicit, and some fans have posted explicit comments on players’ personal social media accounts.

Emily Rath, the author of “Pucking Around,” a romance best seller on Amazon, said on TikTok that some fans had raised concerns about inappropriate behavior directed at players earlier this year.

“True hockey romance readers have been here before,” Ms. Rath said on TikTok. “We watched it all unfold in April, we were ringing the alarm bells, we were asking that it stop.”

The conflict peaked when an N.H.L. player’s wife got involved.

The issue started to attract attention from outside the romance world in July, when Felicia Wennberg, the wife of Alex Wennberg, said that some posts about her husband had gone too far.

Ms. Wennberg said on Instagram Stories that while she had initially joked about some of the videos and comments, they had since “crossed the line of what it means to fancy someone and when it actually sounds pretty predatory and exploiting.”

Her statement described what she considered acceptable, such as positive comments about her husband’s looks, and what she did not, such as chanting “krak my back” at players at games. She asked people to “think twice” about their posts.

In response, her Instagram account was flooded with harassing messages.

Mr. Wennberg then issued a statement on social media about the “vile comments.”

“We can all take a joke and funny comments but when it turns personal and into something bigger that affects our family, we need to tell you that we’ve had enough,” he wrote. “Enough of sexual harassment, and harassment of our character and our relationship.”

The Kraken has since removed its TikTok posts about BookTok.

How did TikTok creators respond?

The sexually explicit posts were made by a small sliver of the BookTok community.

One creator, Kierra Lewis, had made a video that Ms. Wennberg cited as an example of inappropriate behavior, and Ms. Lewis has since posted a handful of videos responding to the situation.

Ms. Lewis, who has 1.1 million followers on TikTok, had been flown out to a Kraken game earlier this year after she posted videos featuring explicit comments about N.H.L. players, including Mr. Wennberg.

She said that she had privately messaged Ms. Wennberg on Instagram to apologize. Ms. Lewis said that the Kraken TikTok account had unfollowed her, leaving her “confused and upset.”

In her videos responding to the controversy, Ms. Lewis expressed frustration with the team for backing away after it encouraged her, and with Ms. Wennberg for using one of Ms. Lewis’s posts as an example. She defended her videos by saying that TikTok is for “entertainment.”

Ms. Lewis did not respond to a request for comment.

The Kraken said in a statement that they had originally engaged with BookTok to connect with new audiences, but were reminded by this situation “that unintended consequences may arise.”

“It is disappointing that a small percentage of online commenters crossed a line,” the statement said. “We consider this a learning moment for the organization and have taken appropriate action.”

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