I'm not talking about the holiday season, though that's pretty good in its own right what with the cookies and the presents and the big guy in the red suit and all.
No, this is about a newer December tradition, but one that has already burrowed deep into the hearts of hockey fans. Another year of HBO's 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic is upon us, with the first episode debuting Wednesday night.
After last year's inaugural season brought so many memorable images from the leadup to the Penguins and Capitals clash, HBO faced a tough task in living up to expectations, even with the complete behind the scenes access they are given. After all, how to you top profanity-laced tirades — and side trips for morning ice cream — by Bruce Boudreau? Or the hideous sight of Ben Lovejoy's swollen face, which was actually only the second-most gruesome thing shown after Max Talbot's Christmas sweater?
Wednesday's first episode following the Flyers and Rangers on the road to this year's Winter Classic at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park didn't have the benefit of last year's freshness. No one knew what to expect when it debuted last December, and the level of access and insight into the lives of players on and off the ice was groundbreaking.
This year, HBO is tilling the same ground, but they still managed to deliver some surprises in an entertaining opening hour.
The first upset came before the opening credits even rolled. In the intro, it was Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, not fiery Rangers counterpart John Tortorella, who usurped Boudreau's role in reminding us all again why we love the fact that HBO is uncensored. Laviolette won the race to drop the first F-bomb of the night, with his first line of the night a memorable declaration of the Flyers' philosophy.
"We are not a conservative team," Laviolette tells his players. "We are a 'Let's-[bleeping]-giddy-up-and-go type of team."
Lightning fans still waiting for the Flyers to move the puck out of their zone against Tampa's 1-3-1 trap might take issue with the accuracy of that statement, but it was a heck of a good tone-setter for the program. Laviolette actually built a commanding 5-1 lead in the F-bomb race in the intro, but Tortorella proved his profanity does have staying power as he finished the night with a 10-8 edge by this reporter's unofficial count.
The language isn't likely to offend many Bruins fans, but the sight of Rangers assistant Mike Sullivan behind the bench may have sent some shivers down their spines. In light of Claude Julien's run of success it's easy to forget the dark days of last-place finishes and completely passionless teams that marked the tenures of Sullivan and Dave Lewis, but Sullivan's presence on the screen is sure to bring back a few frightening flashbacks.
Fortunately, Philly goalie Iyla Bryzgalov will quickly put you back in the right state of mind with his philosophical ponderings on the universe.
"Right now I'm very into the universe, like how it was created, what is it?" Bryzgalov says. "The solar system is like so humungous big, right? But if you see that our galaxy and are solar system are like on the side and they're so small you can't even see our galaxy. It's huge but if you see the big picture our galaxy is like a small, tiny dot in the universe. And you think we have some problems here on the earth to worry about? Compared to like, nothing. Just be happy. Don't worry, be happy, right?"
Can't argue with that, or with Bryzgalov's later insights on such topical issues as tiger hunting in Asia.
"China law, if you kill tiger like this — death penalty," the goalie explains to a team trainer. "If you kill the tiger and they find you, you're dead. That's it."
That may actually be preferable to playing goal in Philadelphia. Bryzgalov relayed what he had heard about the City of Brotherly Love's treatment of netminders before signing with the Flyers this summer.
"You know where you going?" Bryzgalov says. "You going to hell. It's a miserable market for the goalie."
Guess $51 million over nine years can make even a goalie hell palatable, and a healthy dose of Bryzgalov's views on the world certainly help us forget the breakout stars of last year's 24/7. Or maybe not, as Pittsburgh coach Dan "Flower's in the cage" Bylsma makes a cameo, chatting with Talbot, who left Pittsburgh to sign with Philadelphia this summer.
Fortunately Talbot brought his holiday sweater collection with him across the state, though in one of the few disappointments in the program, HBO gave us just the briefest of glimpses of it at the Flyers' holiday skate with their kids.
As with last year, the up close footage of the on-ice action and the behind the scenes look at the toll the game takes on the bodies and minds of the players involved was among the most riveting elements of the program. But those scenes were interspersed with plenty of other small moments that showed there's plenty of humor in this world as well.
Some of the best included the Rangers' reaction to the "Exotic Limousines" company decal on the back of the limo picking up the players and a group of kids for an outing to Radio City Music Hall, Sean Avery's bleep-eating grin when he walks into the New York locker room and looks at Artem Anisimov after Anisimov's post-goal celebration using his stick like a gun sparked a brawl against the Lightning, referee Chris Rooney's explanation to Tortorella that Anisimov got a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct because that celebration wasn't "kosher," and of course, Ryan Callahan's 95-year-old grandmother complaining about a penalty called against the Rangers captain in Buffalo.
HBO set the bar mighty high last season, but they didn't stumble in their approach in their second go-round. Unless the cameras somehow catch Tortorella sinking off to a Haagen Dazs, they might not top last year's effort, but there's still nothing offering a more entertaining and insightful look inside the NHL than this HBO production.
Screenshot via YouTube
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