HBO's 24/7 finishes in fine fashion
HBO's 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic series for the NHL's Winter Classic outdoor game wrapped up Wednesday night with the fourth and final episode. Heading into the finale, it felt like the series had run its course. While it was a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at the NHL, viewers could watch only so many of the same pregame speeches, morning skates and rapid-fire game highlights before it felt like the same episode over and over again. That's why it was such a pleasant surprise that the final episode, in many ways, was the best of the series. In addition to tying together some of the subplots of the series, the fourth installment focused on the actual outdoor game and was the best written of the four parts, particularly the final 10 minutes which brilliantly explained that hockey is a fast-paced sport and lifestyle that cannot be captured in a snapshot. After the Winter Classic, a half season still remained for both teams. This special game was over, but it really was just another game. The road continued to another game in another arena in another city. In those final moments -- with the signature shot of soap-soaked hockey jerseys swirling in a washing machine -- the series poetically captured the unrelenting grind of an NHL season.
The highlights of this outstanding series were many.
* It took fans into locker rooms, training and medical rooms, charter flights, hotels, meeting rooms and on to the ice to hear and see things they've never heard or seen before.
* It showed the players and coaches as, first and foremost, human beings. We saw Penguins coach Dan Bylsma shooting pucks in the basement with his son, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau going Christmas shopping for his wife, Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis having breakfast with his children before he left on a road trip and they headed off to school, Caps newly-acquired defenseman Scott Hannan house-hunting with his wife and 10-month-old baby after being traded.
* And in the most entertaining parts, the series allowed viewers to listen in to all the nasty things that players say to one another and to referees during a game. For example, Penguins star Sidney Crosby arguing for a penalty shot during the Winter Classic and being told by the ref, "I give you a power play and you're going to (expletive) give me attitude?'' To which Crosby replied, "I watched (expletive) 80 games on TV and that's a penalty shot every time. By the way, that was a (expletive) hook on the way in, too.''
Ultimately, what made the series so good was not just HBO's all-access coverage, but the players and coaches feeling comfortable enough to be themselves and give us a raw, brutally honest look into their world. Most of the time, they talked and acted as if there were no cameras.
This easily goes down as the best portrait ever shown about hockey. And it gave the NHL exposure it has never had, at least not in the United States and it should give the league some ideas about moving forward. A couple of years ago, former NHL star Jeremy Roenick suggested that the NHL have two U.S. television contracts. One would be the normal broadcasts seen on ESPN or Versus or whatever. The other would be on a cable outlet such as HBO or Showtime. For those games, players would wear microphones so fans could hear what was being said. After watching 24/7, that idea sounds better than ever.
That likely will never happen, but here's hoping that HBO revisits the 24/7 format for hockey again next season. Because just when it seemed like viewers were ready for this edition to be over, we can't wait for another one to begin.