Narrative lies at the heart of HBO’s 24/7: Road to the NHL Winter Classic. Fandom might be what draws many to the series, to go behind the scenes of their favorite hockey team, but it is narrative that makes that series palpable for those who might not be fans of these particular teams, or who might not even be fans of hockey.
Last season, in charting the Penguins and Capitals as they marched their way toward the annual Winter Classic, I’d argue that 24/7 did a very nice job of selling the sport of hockey to fans and non-fans alike. It did not sell it as the most thrilling sport on the planet, perhaps, but it certainly sold it as an intersection of personal narratives, rather than as a simple form of competition. Obviously, the series was on some level predicated on rivalry, but that rivalry eventually melted away to the point where we saw two distinct teams converging in one location with two separate narratives, each with various embedded stories building up to the game that, even if it has become a shameless outlet for brand visibility, still has a certain thrill tied to the novelty of outdoor hockey.
However, I’ll admit that I was invested in the broader rivalry that Penguins/Capitals offered. Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin may be an arbitrary construction of the NHL, designed to sell a new generation of young stars, but it was an arbitrary construction that I quite enjoyed seeing built within a televised narrative form. The show didn’t end up portraying much of the rivalry, in part because Crosby seemed effectively off limits to the camera crew off the ice, but it could draw parallels between two players who have been so clearly identified as the future of the sport, a narrative tool that held considerable value. Similarly, the two teams were both considered competitors for the conference championship, and Washington’s playoff struggles nicely contrasted the Penguins’ recent Stanley Cup success.
By comparison, while I didn't think the show depended on the teams involved, I was less excited about the Philadelphia Flyers/New York Rangers combination, although “Part One” of 24/7 Flyers/Rangers: Road to the NHL Winter Classic suggests that I had no reason to be. If anything, there is something refreshing about the clear lack of a “star narrative” operating within the series, resisting the bigger stories to focus instead on the players whom we may not have known before the series. If we are fans of one of these teams, it’s an inside look at players we’ve come to know, watch, follow; if we are not fans, however, the episode does such a good job of highlighting and familiarizing these players that we become fans, if not of the teams, then certainly of the players themselves.
In truth, the premiere highlights the generic structure that lies at the heart of this format, hewing closely to what we saw last year. Some of the various situations are even identical, with the Flyers having their holiday party (complete with families on the ice, and Max Talbot wearing his best Christmas sweater, both present in last year's 24/7) or with the players heading out into the community to do work with young hockey prospects. We meet families, we hear about players adjusting to new surroundings after a trade, and we use games and the downtime between them as a narrative structure to capture the ups and downs of life as an NHL hockey player.
And yet I have no need to complain about the repetition in these areas, because it’s a formula that works beautifully. What’s interesting about this premiere is that it actually pretty much ignores any sense of rivalry, focusing instead on who these teams are at this point in time. On some level, the Rangers are lacking an overarching narrative, presenting more of the day-to-day operation of a fairly stable hockey franchise. The cameras are fascinated by New York City, though, and love nothing more than tracking the players on their commute to Madison Square Garden or getting an excuse to follow Sean Avery off to his modeling shoot. Sold on their history and their urban locale, the Rangers operate as any other hockey team would, a window into the perils of excessive celebration, intra-team politics, and eventually captain Ryan Callahan’s triumphant return home to upstate New York where he scores the winning goal in front of his extended family. These are all simple stories, but simple is where this series shines: Following a player around the day after a potential injury is not documentary filmmaking at its finest, but it offers a glimpse into the minutiae, which is what we so rarely see outside of this setting.
By comparison, however, the Flyers are presented as a more intriguing specimen (at least coming in as someone with no emotional connection to either team). They’re the team that’s rebuilding, and the team that is at the top of the Eastern Conference despite their captain, Chris Pronger, sitting on the bench. I love any narrative of rebuilding, so to hear them talking about aggressive turnover offers some compelling insight, and it helps that the rundown of their lineup revealed narratives that I could personally connect to. It’s interesting how, although we normally associate hockey fandom with teams, our hockey knowledge very much operates on a player-by-player basis. In the case of Jaromir Jagr, who I watched as a kid playing alongside Mario Lemieux and who has stayed active in my memory through International competition, it was an instant nostalgia trip. And yet, at the same time, there was something very satisfying about following Max Talbot from one season of 24/7 to the next, given that he signed with the Flyers over the offseason after playing for the Penguins. That moment checking in with his old coach Dan Bylsma before the game was short, and ultimately insignificant, but I loved the sense of seriality it provided before we had really even established the season’s narratives.
For these reasons, 24/7 remains the tremendous portal into these kinds of narratives that it was last season, and even without Crosby and Ovechkin as entry points I was able to pick up on Richards, Avery, Briere and other familiar faces while also latching onto Simmonds, Callahan, and the philosophizing of the rather wonderful Bryzgalov. By the time the episode ended, I had a sense of Tortorella and Laviolette’s coaching styles, a general sense of each team’s dynamic, and plenty of observational moments which add up to a better understanding of how these particular teams tends to operate on a personal and professional level. In these areas, 24/7 remains compelling television for everyone, and must watch television for hockey fans.
However, I do want to address what feels like a broader concern, one that has to do with the series' interest in hockey as a sport. 24/7 exists, after all, in an effort to sell America on a product they have generally not been buying, on creating the sense that there is a history of hockey in this country despite what the vast majority of Americans might believe. They can talk about the Original Six, and they can position these two teams as bitter rivals on the level of rivalries in other sports, but at the end of the day hockey is not seen as an American pastime. The Rangers and the Flyers were picked for the upcoming Winter Classic because they’re large market teams who can draw a large urban audience, extensive media coverage, and maybe catch enough eyeballs around the country that Commissioner Gary Bettman doesn’t have to swallow yet another fair-weather American franchise hopping back north across the border to my beloved Canada (as we saw with the Atlanta Thrashers moving to Winnipeg, Manitoba before the beginning of this season).
As with last year, the NHL is being sold based on its grueling schedule, its unpredictability, and its — and I am quoting here —“ubiquitous brutality” within the special, and I can’t say I’m particularly surprised. However, that final point feels particularly at odds with broader narratives surrounding the NHL. As someone who doesn’t quite have time to watch a lot of hockey but finds himself filtering through news reports on a weekly basis, the story in hockey right now are the consequences of that “ubiquitous brutality.” The NHL is cracking down on illegal hits, with Brendan Shanahan — taking time off from his cameo appearances as a cardboard cutout on NBC’s Up All Night — becoming highly visible in his role as Senior Vice President, Player Safety and Hockey Operations, while laying out a wide range of suspensions. At the same time, as 24/7 referenced in passing as the Flyers battled with the Penguins during tonight’s premiere, Sidney Crosby just this week came back off the ice with concussion symptoms after recently returning following months of recovery from concussion incidents that, coincidentally, stem in part from last year’s Winter Classic.
Going into tonight’s episode, I wondered how they were going to handle these issues, and they certainly had plenty of opportunities to answer this question. A brutal hit in the first game from Dion Phaneuf of the Toronto Maple Leafs seemed to open the door for a conversation — the hit, though, was perfectly clean — and then talk of Chris Pronger’s concussion woes felt like another potential point of entry. In both cases, no larger conversation was broached. Similarly, while Claude Giroux’s concussion that ends the episode on a cliffhanger was a product of a collision with a teammate, and not an illegal hit, there is still no attempt to draw a larger narrative of what is happening in the league right now, even with the reference to Crosby (which here functions more as a point of information, potentially for those who watched last season, more than any sort of narrative).
What’s interesting about all of this is that the NHL is presenting themselves as proactive in this matter, suspending players and even posting online videos to explain the suspension to help spread awareness of the increased efforts to cut down on dangerous hits, and yet this glossy sales pitch for the “reality” of hockey is still valorizing the violence at the heart of the game. I’m not suggesting that the series needs to vilify that violence, or that violence doesn’t belong in the sport, but it feels as though given the current tenor of conversation some of 24/7’s aims feel as though they don’t quite jibe with the NHL’s public stance on the issue.
It simply feels as though the media coverage of hockey right now - like this Grantland piece, for example - is more centered than ever before on the physical consequences of the game’s violence, and to watch a documentary operating within that space skirt past those issues becomes problematic if not unexpected. I don’t expect this NHL-co-produced documentary to start becoming critical of the league for glorifying violence, nor do I necessarily think they are glorifying violence (although, technically speaking, I’m not exactly a huge proponent of fighting’s place in hockey, if we want to get down to my personal opinion). But just a few weeks after the New York Times’ piece about the life and death of Derek Boogaard, which is actually part of a series of tragic deaths of NHL enforcers that have been linked to long-term ailments suffered during their careers, there’s something odd about seeing these issues glossed over, like when a kid asked a Ranger player “why do you fight in hockey” and it was elided with a chuckle — it may not be the story this documentary series intends to tell, but it nonetheless hangs over the proceedings, and is something I’m curious to see them grapple with as Giroux works to recover in the weeks ahead and as we'll no doubt see more fights break out.
None of this is new, of course — like with other professional sports, you take the good with the bad, and come to accept certain realities. Within the context of “Part One,” Giroux's injury is a narrative speed bump rather than part of a broader league-wide narrative, and the editors have done a fine job of building suspense for how the Flyers will battle on without him. The editors, just like the players on the ice who deliver these hits or get into those fights, are doing the job they were paid to do, and in this case that’s to make the NHL seem like a compelling, affective, exciting sport played by real people with real stories.
As with last season, this remains a job that they do very well, if a job that may not provide a full picture of the discourse surrounding the league at this moment, and I remain very excited to follow those stories as the four-episode season continues in the weeks ahead.
- Of the tropes that carry over from last year, I think the “Working with Young Kids” one is the most cliché (and the most obvious in terms of its efforts to make the NHL and its teams look good), but all of them work pretty well to give us a good introduction.
- Always love the moments when the HBO cameras become part of the conversation: Enjoyed the early comment from Tortorella that the mic was causing someone to play poorly, and then also enjoyed the teasing in terms of why the cameras were following around certain players.
- While it was certainly an orchestrated moment, Callahan’s family was still kind of wonderful, in particular his sassy 95-year-old grandmother who wanted to give the referees a piece of her mind and eventually shed a few tears out of pride for her grandson’s performance. It was just a really beautiful moment in isolation, and I have no problem seeing more of that kind of thing.
- It wasn’t quite actively making fun of him, but the music under Sean Avery’s modeling session was still reading “We’re Not Taking Him Entirely Seriously” to me.
- As someone who once did a Grade 8 presentation on Grant Fuhr, I was interested to see them raise the question of racial diversity in the NHL, if only briefly (and largely suggesting that it’s no big deal). Would like to see that thread followed a bit further.
- We didn’t get to spend any time with him, but in terms of player connections for me personally, I have fond memories of Jody Shelley’s time with the Halifax Mooseheads back in the mid-late nineties, so I’m interested to see if he draws a spotlight in subsequent installments.
- I saw in the “What’s On Tonight” earlier that some of you are fans of these teams, so I’m very interested to hear from those of you who have been more invested with these teams and their narratives.