Finally, something seemed to be going right for the National Hockey League. Despite flagging attendance and abysmal television ratings, the league was headed into next week's midseason break on a wave of positive publicity. For the first time in, well, maybe forever, people seemed excited about the league's annual All-Star Game.
The big story of this year's contest began with a single fan—22-year-old Steve Schmid of upstate New York. Schmid decided that it would be neat to see a hard-working journeyman get voted into the All-Star Game. He chose the Vancouver Canucks' Rory Fitzpatrick, an unremarkable player without much talent or flashy stats—in hockey terms, a grinder. The " Vote for Rory" movement took off soon after All-Star voting began in late November. Media outletspicked up the story a few weeks later, when the Vancouver players took their morning skatein "Vote for Rory" T-shirts. Rory supporters started posting clever campaign adson YouTube, and by early December he'd been written about in USA Today, the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated.
Rory Fitzpatrick has exactly one assist this season and only nine goals scored after a decade in the league.He missed a month of play this year with a broken ankle, and hisname was nowhere to be found among the league-sanctioned superstars on the official ballot. But on the strength of Schmid's campaign, Rory soon moved up to fifth in the voting among defensemen.
The press played up Rory-maniaas a grass-roots movementto change the league. But a bunch of league stalwarts lashed out at the campaign. On the CBC's Hockey Night, Don Cherry called the whole thing a joke: " Rory, if you're watching, they're not laughing with you, they're laughing at you." On the Fox News-style Hockeycentral Panel, one commentator described Rory-voters as a bunch of " computer geeks." Wayne Gretzky suggested that the league interveneto save the All-Star Game. ESPN's Barry Melrose made an ominous warning about how the league would respond: "If this works, enjoy it," he said, "'cause I gotta think they'll have a trick up their sleeve so it'll never happen again."
It turned out the old-school hockey guys may have been onto something. A bunch of "computer geeks" were, in fact, driving the "Vote for Rory" campaign. And the NHL did have a trick up its sleeve to undermine the popular vote.
The YouTube videos and the "Vote for Rory" signs that started popping up at NHL arenas attest to the genuine support hockey fans gave Rory Fitzpatrick. But the campaign really took off because his supporters appeared to have figured out how to cheat the system.
The NHL's All-Star voting this year was carried out exclusively via unlimited online balloting. Anyone could vote for any player as many times as they wanted, so long as they took the time to fill out the entire ballot. By the end of the third week of voting, a young Vancouver computer programmer named Brad Touesnard had released the " Rory Vote-O-Matic"—a plug-in for the Firefox browser that allowed fans to fill out the ballot automatically. Thousands of times per hour. The campaign's initial organizers, who hung their shingle at VoteForRory.com, disavowed the use of voting bots. Still, the Vote-O-Matic seemed to have an impact. Over the next two weeks, Rory registered an astonishing 285,000 write-in votes; he surged into second place in the voting on Dec. 19—good enough to ensure a starting spot on the All-Star team.
How did the Rory Vote-O-Matic work? According to Touesnard, online security at NHL.com was pathetic. The league tried to counter automated scripts by making voters decipher words embedded in distorted images—a system known as CAPTCHA. But the NHL used only 51 different picture files and each one had a predictable name, like "1.gif." All the Rory hackers had to do was create a table that linked up each file name with the appropriate pass phrase. Touesnard coded up the Vote-O-Matic in just a few hours.
It would have been easy for the league to implement a better system. A script that generated filenames on the fly for each distorted image would have flummoxed the Vote-O-Matic. Instead, the NHL programmers tried to patch their system with quick fixes. Touesenard says they first put in a time delay to the voting, and then they added more pass phrases and renamed the picture files. The league stepped up its efforts in the final two weeks—by the time the voting was over, Rory hackers had discovered about 12,000 security files on the league server. But nothing stopped them for long; according to the comments on the Vote-O-Matic Web site, the plug-in worked until the very end.
The press had fallen in love with the Rory campaign, and no one seemed to notice when the Globe and Mail broke the Vote-O-Matic story on Dec. 20. Now the league's inability to stop the Vote-o-Matic (and other automated scripts) placed it in an awkward position. In public, the Bettman crew signed on with the Rory campaign. "It's good that a lot of people are having fun with it," announced a league spokesman. " This story underscores the respect we have for our fans' passion." But something else seemed to be going on behind the scenes. The next round of voting results were a bit surprising. Despite all the news coverage—and all the efforts of the Vote-O-Matic—Fitzpatrick's vote totals had fallen off a cliff. After receiving 285,000 votes the two previous weeks, he got just 58,000 in the week ending on Dec. 26 and dropped to third place in the standings. Had the Vote for Rory campaign run out of steam? Or did the NHL brass decide it was time to take matters into their own hands?