On the one hand, I was excited about the possibility of access to the stories behind the scenes of life in the NHL that not even a decade on the beat can come close to matching. On the other hand, there was also a sense of dread that HBO would simply join the league in its nonstop effort to shove nothing but Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin down our throats in the four-part series that aired its final episode Wednesday night.
Fortunately, HBO avoided that pitfall. Sure, the two stars were prominently featured, warts and all with Crosby’s complaining over calls and Ovechkin’s borderline hits getting play alongside their dazzling skills — but the program also made stars out of many other characters, the kind of characters who help make the sport of hockey such a special game.
There were of course the unforgettable speeches of Washington coach Bruce Boudreau, who proved that Ralphie’s old man in A Christmas Story wasn’t the only one who “worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay.” Boudreau was a true master of the four-letter vocabulary, not to mention a skilled tracker capable of finding the nearest Haagen-Dazs at any time of day.
Pittsburgh counterpart Dan Bylsma made his mark with more cerebral breakdowns of his opponents, but also showed his ability to fire up his troops when he wanted them to go out and “grind these bitches down.”
He was no better at motivating than former Bruin Mike Knuble, the Caps’ veteran leader who was unwilling to let his club’s slide go on any longer as he launched into an expletive-laden between-periods speech of his own.
There was also inspiration in the eyes of Matt Hendricks and Ben Lovejoy, as discolored and swollen as they were after run-ins with a fist and a puck, respectively. Those badges of honor, along with the sight of Deryk Engelland being stitched up between periods after a bout with Colton Orr, showed perfectly the toughness, passion and dedication the sport demands, heightening the awareness and appreciation of fans for what these players endure to play at the game’s highest level.
And a special kudos to HBO for an unvarnished look at the physical side of the game. The NHL has long tried to hide or even eliminate the physical side of the game, even as it remains one of the most popular elements of the sport. But HBO didn’t flinch in the face of punches being exchanged. Instead, they gave an inside look at how such confrontations develop and the aftermath of those flare-ups.
There were also plenty of lighter moments: Penguins rookies returning to their hotel to find their furniture in the hallway, Max Talbot’s pursuit of Santa’s attractive helpers and Pascal Dupuis donning a Steelers helmet for Pittsburgh’s practice at Heinz Field.
There were the emotional moments, such as Eric Fehr playing Santa to an inner-city family in Washington. The series even tried to put a human face on arch-villain Matt Cooke, revealing his secret identity as a dedicated family man away from the rink.
Fortunately, HBO didn’t try to hide his real personality on the ice, where his true colors were on display with his dirty play and non-stop whining. And even the family vignettes took on a different light when it was revealed in the opening episode what Cooke’s son has really learned from his father, as Talbot told the tale of being speared by young Jackson Cooke during a holiday skate for the Penguins and their families.
The 24/7 series might not have rehabilitated Cooke’s image too much, but it did wonders for the NHL. The Winter Classic has quickly become the league’s premier showcase, attracting more interest than even the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It’s become the focal point of the league’s effort to expand its brand and attract new fans. And the inside look 24/7 offered may have done more for that cause than even the glorious spectacle of the annual outdoor game itself.
The league has to do everything in its power to make the series an annual part of the festivities surrounding the Winter Classic, if not expand it into a longer behind-the-scenes look at NHL life.
One of hockey’s biggest struggles in gaining traction with non-fans is the relative anonymity of the players hidden beneath helmets and visors. In just four hours, HBO did more to lift the veil off those players and show just how engaging the personalities in the game and how enthralling the action on the ice can be than ever before.
Sequels don’t often live up to the magic of the original, but in this case, the NHL and HBO have to keep adding entries to the 24/7 franchise.
Did HBO’s 24/7 program improve the Winter Classic experience and should the show return for next year’s game? Share your thoughts below.