The University of Wisconsin-Superior hockey team hasn’t yet played a game this season — COVID-19 has led to a truncated Division III schedule — but the team already has upward of 260,000 followers tuned in to the antics of defensemen Lawson McDonald and company.
The Yellowjackets have an audience on TikTok, first via McDonald, whose content is about being a college athlete: the overnight oats he eats for breakfast, crossing the United States-Canadian border to get back to school, the plate with the screws in his collarbone and his mostly fake front teeth. Then from the slightly more popular account, he also started @thehockeyguys, which is more interactive and dips into TikTok trends.
The significant following has been a mix of luck, timing and content, McDonald said after a recent practice at Wessman Arena.
TikTok was new when he started, and he found a niche with his content.
“Any video that was unique was going to get thrown out there because there weren’t too many yet,” he said. “Now there’s so many videos, so many creators. It’s going to be harder now.”
The Yellowjackets' season starts Jan. 27 against Northland College in Ashland, and their first home game is Jan. 29.
Building a following
McDonald’s first video was the Oh Nanana Challenge — a TikTok trend with specific choreography set to a song by Brazilian artist Bonde R300. In his take, the video has a twist in the end: a crash that occurs off-screen, then a shot of the up-ended ping pong table and his girlfriend doubled over laughing.
It was an inauspicious start — just more than 1,000 likes.
His second video, though, seven months later, blew up. In it, his UWS teammates lie on their backs packed in a tight circle, legs in the air holding a 30 gallon bucket full of water. One at a time, each teammate removes a shoe while everyone else tries to balance the bucket.
At least one guy gets drenched.
“I’m sure a lot of people haven’t seen it before,” McDonald said of the team-building exercise coach Rich McKenna assigned and that he had captured on his phone — with his coach's permission.
McDonald hit four million views when he and a friend did the tabletop challenge — a feat of strength and balance. And another video with his girlfriend where, after a quick flip of the bathroom light switch, they reappear wearing the other’s clothes — received one million views.
“That was the start of my TikTok,” said McDonald, who is a senior from Manitoba.
What he has learned, so far, about making a popular video: keep it short and to the point and use music that is currently trending on TikTok. McDonald describes himself as soft-spoken and chill. He is working through this, developing his public speaking muscles, with these online ventures. (He also has a YouTube channel with more than 6,000 followers.)
After dozens of videos, his content started leaning more hockey-centric, and his teammates became recurring characters.
McDonald’s personal favorite clip is a nod to a scene from the Minnesota-based hockey movie “Mighty Ducks.” In their tribute, more than a handful of Yellowjackets inline-skate around the campus and downtown Superior, corralling players for a game. One is roused from a park bench, another pulled from the doorway of a bar.
This past fall, McDonald started @thehockeyguys for the videos he made with that regular cast. Within a few months, he has nearly doubled his own personal following. A lot of it is filmed at an outdoor rink where they, for instance, each show off their best celly — puck parlance for how they celebrate a goal.
There’s Will Blake, his stick like a bazooka, and Levi Cudmore riding his stick like a horse. Along comes Coltyn Bates, playing his stick like an electric guitar.
These videos are a mix of pre-plotted and spontaneous takes for the crew that spends a lot of time on and off-ice together.
“We’re getting out there with the guys and having fun,” said Bates. “You’re doing it with your best friends.”
Getting to know the Yellowjackets
Other videos offer fun facts about these faces that are typically hidden beneath a helmet.
Austin Friesen, for instance, loves cats. He pops up regularly snuggling a gray tabby. When a fan of TheHockeyGuys asked for a video of just Cudmore, or “Cuddy,” McDonald posted a montage of the sophomore working out, playing in the snow, showing off an ugly Christmas sweater, with his cat, set to the song “Everybody Talks” by Neon Trees.
It has more than 17,000 likes.
When the guys went live recently, they faced off with about 25,000 viewers — a surprising amount from Brazil.
“This isn’t something we work up and strived to do,” Bates said. “It’s just really fun for us. I don’t think any of us understand how crazy it is. But it doesn’t change anything.”
McDonald’s friends describe him as a fun and likeable guy, a true creative, and said that none of this would happen without him instigating it. This is new territory for Coach McKenna, self-described as “not good on any social media.” This wasn’t what it looked like to be a college athlete when he was playing hockey at Castleton State (Vermont) in the mid-2000s.
The water bucket challenge that started this was his drill — but it was a friend, he said, who told him how popular the video was.
“I didn’t even know what TikTok was,” McKenna said. “This was my first introduction.”
McDonald’s content, on both accounts, is family-friendly, and TheHockeyGuys’ videos have a wholesome, boy band quality. In a season without in-person fans, it will be hard to gauge whether a TikTok following translates to attendance numbers. But it has been good marketing.
“He’s brought great publicity to our program and the university,” McKenna said. “It has helped us to connect with people, even though they won’t be able to come to our games.”