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@nhlties puts analysts on high alert

First, a confession.

I didn't always tie my own ties. I'm not proud of it, but there it is.

Instead, I'd buy a tie, have the guy at Men's Wearhouse tie it for me, then I'd slip it right over my head and keep the knot in place.

Personally, I thought it was foolproof. A time-saver.

Then, on Twitter, the strategy failed miserably.

It was last spring when I first discovered the Twitter account @nhlties. And I discovered it because my style decision was dissected for the social media world to see. A giant yellow circle highlighted the bad gap between my collar and tie. A red line underscored a bad angle on one side, committing what I now know was a tie foul. In my competition against Minnesota Wild beat writer Mike Russo -- one I didn't even know I was having -- I was DQed. We both were.

Now, I know better. Every hockey journalist or analyst who goes on television knows better. This Twitter account, with nightly competitions over which hockey analyst has the best tie knot, has become a slight obsession for those covering hockey on television.

"I read all the tweets, I read all their three stars," said Sportsnet's Jeff Marek, a regular target of @nhlties. "The commentary is great. It's creative as hell. Every time, and this is 100 percent true -- and it's true for a majority of the people in the industry -- every time I put on a tie before a shot, I think of @nhlties. I'm asking the floor director, the cameraman, 'How's my tie?' Coming back from every break, 'How's my tie?' Everyone has had that conversation."

See? An obsession.

The @nhlties Twitter account is a mix of screen grabs with tie telestrator breakdowns that would make John Madden proud. There are competitions to determine which of two analysts had the better knot, some voted on by fans. They've invented their own tie lingo, a mix of fashion and hockey slang. There is a nightly three stars competition for those hockey analysts who stand out the most. There is great interaction between the account and those they're judging.

Marek admitted to nights he'll get home late from work, with the wife and kids asleep, pour himself a glass of wine and start responding to @nhlties tweets just to see their response.

"It's always gold," Marek said. "Gold. Gold. Gold."

A couple of weeks ago, Marek was in his dressing room getting ready to go on camera when his stylist, the great Deb Berman, pointed out that his knot was too small. He explained that a single knot is the only one he knew.

That had to change.

"She goes, 'We're going to get you a [expletive] win on @nhlties if it's the last thing I do,'" Marek said, laughing. "I don't think I've won one legitimately. It's only been when people have been disqualified."

It's not just Marek. Far from it.

Nothing will ever beat the thrill of winning an NHL game for Colby Armstrong, but he now has a new career in television and another way to feed his competitive side.

"For me, this is an NHL game for me now," Armstrong told ESPN.com of his @nhlties obsession.

Armstrong has been doing work for Sportsnet and still remembers getting the heads-up from a colleague that his tie would be judged on Twitter.

Then he made his first appearance, and there was the tweet waiting from @nhlties.

"Fresh meat," Armstrong recalled the message saying. "Better knot up."

That night, he went toe-to-toe with John Shannon and lost. But there's still a thrill that comes with being in the game.

"I was like, 'Oh my god, I'm in the game! I'm in the game!,'" Armstrong said. "I lost to John Shannon. I was pretty rattled. He cheats. He has buttons on his collar to hold it down."

In the middle of telling the story, Armstrong stopped to wonder what many others have about this Twitter account.

"Who is this guy? Where is this guy from?" he asked.

To get that answer, it's back to Twitter and a direct message to the @nhlties account. It's answered.

A few days later, a gentleman named Patrick is on the other end of the phone line.

The Twitter account that keeps guys like Marek up at night isn't one guy. It's a husband-and-wife team. And an Australian shepherd. And a few friends taking screen grabs and sending them along.

Pressed for more details, the very gracious and affable Patrick declined. No last names even.

"I think it adds to part of the charm," he said of the mystery that surrounds the account.

Patrick lives in Redmond, Washington, and works for Microsoft. He also has -- not surprisingly, if you follow the account -- a degree in fashion. He's crazy about hockey, a passion that started when he got CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada" feed in his Washington home growing up, making Saturday nights a hockey tradition in his home, just as it is in most of Canada.

So when Marek makes an @nhlties reference when sending it over to Scott Oake, as he often does, you can imagine the thrill it brings to Patrick.

"I tell my wife, I'm still just gobsmacked that that happened," he said. "At my age, I knew I never was going to make the NHL. This is the closest I'll ever get."

Every few weeks there will be a moment that causes Patrick to shake his head in amazement. Maybe it's somebody mentioning him on the air. Maybe it's TSN's Bob McKenzie tweeting him. Sometimes it's a phone call to be interviewed.

He can't help but laugh, and it's those laughs that validate the decision to start the thing in the first place. It was a decision that began out of a deep need for distraction for him and his wife.

Patrick hesitated to tell this part of the story because he's not looking for sympathy, but it's as much a part of this creation as the one-liners.

Last January, Patrick and his wife, Julie, lost their son four hours after birth in a tragedy that's altered their lives every day since.

"It was a 1 in 100 million event that took our son," he said. "It was a cosmic numbers game. Nothing genetic."

It was in the time of recovery when this silly distraction became not so silly.

Patrick was watching a San Jose Sharks broadcast, when the fashion critic in him noticed Drew Remenda's perfect knot. From his personal Twitter account, he shot a comment to the broadcast crew, and Brodie Brazil, the Sharks host, responded with the suggestion that the tie evaluations needed their own Twitter account.

An idea was born.

"I just tell people to blame Brodie," Patrick said.

Since then, a bond has forged between the family and the Sharks broadcasters. To the point that those outside San Jose think there's preferential treatment for San Jose broadcasts. They're probably right.

"Randy [Hahn] and Drew made them laugh," said Jamie Baker, who replaced Remenda on the Sharks broadcast this season. "Watching hockey was an escape. They did this as a distraction. That's where it starts."

The popularity of the account has led to fundraising opportunities; money was raised for Hockey Fights Cancer. It's becoming more than just a distraction.

After a moment of seriousness, Baker then goes off on a rant about how the tie rating system is flawed and he doesn't get enough points for speed with his ties and how those working at ice level don't have the benefit of a nearby mirror.

It's the pressure that comes with replacing Remenda, now working Edmonton Oilers broadcasts for Sportsnet. In @nhlties circles, Remenda is known as Tie99 -- he's the Wayne Gretzky of tie knots.

"I'm following Tie99. I'm in a no-win position," Baker said, joking.

Remenda has set a high bar. He's forcing everyone to improve their tie game.

I no longer keep my ties tied. Turns out, it wrinkles them. It ultimately hurts the knot. It's a fast way to be DQed.

Armstrong has gone through the same tie evolution.

"I used to just literally loosen it up enough to get it over my nose," Armstrong said. "Get it over my nose and boom, over the head."

Those days are long gone. Not with Patrick and Julie on the watch. Now, the two are accompanied by thousands of followers and admirers in the world of hockey.

"Everyone loves them," Armstrong said. "You know what my new goal is? I have a new set of goals. A new life. I'm taking down Tie99 one of these days in a duel. It's happening."