New Year's Day is no longer the private domain of college football. Started in 2008, the Winter Classic is now the National Hockey League's greatest single-day event on the calendar and a major player on the first day of the New Year. Though other outdoor hockey games have come before it over the years, the Classic has grown into an annual spectacle. It now dwarfs the NHL's All-Star Game and rivals its Stanley Cup Final games in viewership.
For the fourth edition of the Classic, the NHL brought out the heavy hitters. Maybe it was influenced by the compelling play from the Olympic gold medal game between Canada and the United States where, once again, the Canadian Crosby beat the American Miller. Maybe it was influenced by the increasing on- and off-ice profile of Russian superstar Alexander Ovechkin. Maybe the League was inspired by the other major professional leagues. The NBA puts its biggest stars on the Christmas stage; the NFL owns Thanksgiving.
No matter what inspired the latest matchup, the 2011 Winter Classic at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field between the hometown Penguins and the Washington Capitals was already bound to be a show. Yet, when HBO Sports signed on to produce its acclaimed 24/7 series, following the Penguins and Capitals in the lead-up to the Classic, hype found a new crescendo, and access found a world long-resistant to such.
Debuted December 15th, 24/7's intimate look into the heart of these two Stanley Cup contenders reveals a style and culture clash between the teams. The Capitals are young and talent-laden and have yet to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. As 24/7 begins the Capitals were trying to pull themselves from their worst slump in three seasons. The Penguins are also young and talent-laden but possess a maturity from their two Finals appearances – including winning it all in 2009. As 24/7 begins the Penguins are steamrolling the league, in the midst of a 12-game winning streak.
The culture clash starts with each team's head man: Bruce Boudreau of Washington and Dan Blysma of Pittsburgh. As the pressure on his Capitals mounted with each frustrating game, Boudreau tries his hardest to keep the powder keg from exploding. On the other hand, the youthful Blysma proves to be an even-keeled but exacting tactician as Pittsburgh tallied win after win.
The contrast in styles is striking. Oz is an Oklahoma City-based blogger who runs the growing Penguins blog the Outbox. "I always felt that the Penguins Shero and (Hall of Famer and Pens legend Mario) Lemieux have had their act together. This show proves it," says Oz. "What I am totally stunned by is the lack of the same with the Caps. The total obsession that organization has displayed referencing the Pens over and over while the Penguins haven't given them a second thought is telling."
Those Capital concerns were evident in the initial episode. During a December 9th road game against the Florida Panthers, the Capitals played as if they had the weight of the world on their shoulders. Down 1-0 going into the second intermission, Boudreau launches into an expletive-laden rant in the locker room that was supposed to fire up his downtrodden players:
Outwork the f---ing guys! If you want it, don't just think you want it. Go out and f---ing want it. But you're not looking like you want it, you look like you're feeling sorry for yourself. And nobody f---ing wants anybody that's feeling sorry for themselves. You got 20 f---ing minutes. You're down by one f---ing shot. Surely to f--- we can deal with this.
On the flipside, the Penguins were loose, reveling in the moment, their 12-game winning streak. Pittsburgh was guided by scintillating play from Crosby, on a streak of his own, 25 consecutive games with a score, and a different supporting star every night. The Pens displayed their full might in Toronto, veterans played a prank on rookies at the team's hotel, and Matt Cooke, unable to shave for a month after losing a practice shootout, becoming the team's "Moustache Boy."
The fortunes of Washington eventually changes in the second episode. The losing continues for the Caps, however. A gut-wrenching overtime loss at home to the Anaheim Ducks provokes another curse-filled rant from Boudreau. Sports media abuzz about the coach's job security. Down 3-0 early in an eventual loss to the Boston Bruins, veteran right winger Mike Knuble takes inspiration from his coach with his own diatribe:
It will not f---ing turn into a 5-0, 7-0 f---ing laugher where they're f---ing giggling getting out of their f---ing mess here. We're f---ing down 3-0, and we are going to come back and were gonna f---ing win this thing. We're not f---ing going in the tank. That's enough right there. That's f---ing more than a year's worth. It's not going to happen again.
Back-to-back losses change the mood in Pittsburgh, too. Crosby gets into a fight in Dallas, one that draws comparison to a recent fight of Ovechkin's against the Rangers in New York. The Penguins meet defeat with stern faces, a business-minded approach that starts with Bylsma. There's no fits of anger or stirring speeches to rally the troops. The Penguins just get back to work. The episode ends with both teams winning before their first meeting of the season, a prelude to the Classic at Washington's Verizon Center.
The third episode reminded viewers why HBO is the gold standard in capturing sports stories. Of the entire hour, 26 minutes were devoted to this prelude clash. You could have easily mistaken this game for one of the HBO's signature boxing cards. Each crash to the boards was akin to one of Miguel Cotto's body punches. Every missed shot on goal looked like two cruiserweights throwing fatigued crosses in the 8th round. Players and coaches barking at the referees sounded as crisp as the directives trainers gave their fighters between rounds. Viewers even got to see hockey's version of judges going to the scorecards as HBO showed us the cross-border replay process between referees in Washington and reviewers in the league office in Toronto. In a game that couldn't be decided in overtime, there was an ever-appropriate final round; a high-tension shootout where the Penguins needed seven rounds to emerge as the victor.
Lizz Robbins is a writer, model, and one of Twitter's most popular sports fans. She became a Capitals supports during their surprising (and only) Stanley Cup appearance in 1997. "I never knew what happened behind the scenes," says Robbins. "It was nice to take a journey beyond the ice and the fights. It was great to see the personal lives of the coaches and players, you don't see that focus on the NHL as much you do the other major sports."
The visibility of this Classic was heightened just on the strength of Crosby and Ovechkin, yet the fly-on-the-wall approach from 24/7 increased interest in ways previous installments could not. Ken Fang is the maestro of the venerable sports media site Fang's Bites. "I've seen through social media that viewers who normally wouldn't watch the NHL are now interested in the Winter Classic," said Fang. A passionate Bruins fan, Fang had been gauging interest in the game through his outlets and connections within the media business, including HBO. "You can't buy that interest no matter how much money you invest in billboards, TV ads, internet banners and radio commercials. And to see hockey blogs like Yahoo's Puck Daddy and Puck The Media do episode recaps on 24/7 gives fans who haven't seen the show an idea of what they're missing."
Does this new interest spurn the long-debated new direction for the NHL in promoting itself? Within the hockey community, there had been some consternation about promoting the individual over the team as many fans take pride in the relative humility of their players compared to athletes of other sports. Though the NHL has surged back from the dark days of the lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season, there is still more talk about its smaller stature in the US than the games themselves.
"Remember that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman came from the NBA and he knows the marketing ploys by the Association back in the 1980s and 1990s focusing on Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan," says Fang. "Using the HBO series as a base, Bettman can focus on Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin for a very long time. And if HBO wants to do another series for next year's Winter Classic, the NHL can also market the stars from those two teams as well." That may not exactly sit well with some puckheads. "While hardcore NHL fans may not like focusing on certain players," says Fang, "it's a way to broaden your audience. The NHL has to do something and 24/7 is a great five week marketing offensive for the league."
One could have several takeaways from the series, yet both Oz and Robbins provided two that preach to the choir and new converts. For Oz, it was a new and refreshing look into his team's coach. "I didn't have a high opinion of his coaching ability going into the show," said Oz. "My feelings were that he was a 'preach positive' kind of coach and while he does refuse to go negative, the show has shown me that he has far more going on in his system than I thought. He's a coach, not just a motivational speaker."
Robbins found a new understanding of what truly makes a hockey club. "For me it would be the passion these players have for the sports on both sides," she said. "They train and work hard just like everyone else, I think 24/7 brought light to those who aren't familiar with the hockey world. I wish the series could continue and they did more in depth looks into the NHL."
The marketing struggles of the National Hockey League have been chronicled ad nauseum, overshadowing a game that features arguably the best pure athletes in any sport. Some would say it is pumping too much into the budding Crosby and Ovechkin rivalry. There's no question that the League is trying to cash in on what the NBA has in LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant and what the NFL has in Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and now, Michael Vick. That is, star power. Though the Winter Classic was created to show the world how the League celebrates its game, HBO's 24/7 offers both the diehard and the casual fan an intimate look at a rare moment, a league on the cusp on change.
The final episode of "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road To the NHL Winter Classic" airs tonight, Wednesday, January 5th, on HBO.
[Jason is a staff sportswriter for the New York Beacon, an African-American weekly in New York City. He is also the schizophrenic mind behind a Sports Scribe. Follow him on Twitter to glimpse the rapid-fire method to his madness. To read more by Jason, check out his profile.]
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