24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road To The NHL Winter Classic

24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road To The NHL Winter Classic

HBO Sports’ 24/7 is all about narrative. It’s about finding the story within the spectacle or sometimes letting the spectacle become the story. When I wrote about the debut of Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic four weeks ago, what struck me about the series was that the narrative wasn’t what they wanted it to be, or at least not what HBO had sold the series to be. This didn’t feel like hockey’s greatest rivalry, nor did Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin’s “Battle of the Superstars” feel as if it was anything more than a product of the promotional hype machine. Instead, it was two hockey teams in very different positions fighting their own battles while working towards a common goal and a head-to-head meeting in a few weeks, which was compelling but not in the way I thought HBO wanted it to be.

And yet, despite my skepticism, I have to admit that even for a hockey fan, this series has been a sort of revelation. Not only has the series been an intriguing glimpse into parts of the game that we rarely get the chance to see, but it’s made following the sport in the regular season a much more enriching experience. I’ll readily admit that I’m the definition of the playoff hockey fan. This is not to say that I don’t pay attention to the regular season action of my favorite team—the Montreal Canadiens, who have been in that position since early childhood—on a weekly basis, but I don’t watch many games, nor do I have an in-depth knowledge of their roster. And yet, when playoff time comes, I end up glued to my screen for each game, and I come to learn the different lines, defensive pairings, and individual characteristics which make up the larger whole. During the regular season, they were the Montreal Canadiens; during the playoffs, they were Jaroslav Halak, Mike Cammalleri, Josh Gorges, P.K. Subban, etc.

Watching the Winter Classic on Saturday evening, I could put a face and often a story to the name most times a player touched the puck or grabbed a second of face time on the bench. While I had initially been concerned that the series would focus too heavily on the “superstars,” my ability to recall these names and stories would suggest that 24/7 went considerably deeper. It was as if the playoffs had come early, and the Penguins and the Capitals had transformed from logos at the top of a scoresheet to a collection of individuals who together form a hockey team.

As the series progressed, there was no question that 24/7 Penguins/Capitals was compelling television in its own right, even discounting the effect on watching the game. This is not because Bruce Boudreau loves to drop f-bombs, or that we finally get to hear the trash talk normally muted to ensure that NHL remains family-friendly viewing. While it may contribute to a sense of realism, it is ultimately a novelty. Instead, the series succeeds simply by following the stories on the ice off the ice and vice versa, never allowing for one narrative to disconnect from the other.

The series works because its stories are sort of like that nasty cut Ben Lovejoy suffered in “Episode Three,” after getting hit in the face by a slapshot. Every time he appeared after that, his face swollen to an almost grotesque extreme, it was like the slapshot was playing back in my mind. While there are some smaller stories, which felt tangential, they were adding up to something: If they didn’t contribute to a particular player’s narrative, they contributed to a larger image of team unity and camaraderie. The driving momentum of a grueling season, a season which doesn’t give you a chance to rest and regroup, becomes the glue which brings it all together, creating a far more cohesive narrative than I had initially imagined (and one that is unique to this type of mid-season focus, which is new for 24/7).

Perhaps the greatest sign of the series' quality is that it fundamentally changed how I watched the Winter Classic. Sure, some of this was more negative than positive: I became convinced that the early fight was staged in order to justify HBO’s overreliance on fighting within the series, for example. However, even before HBO’s glossier camera angles and exclusive audio feeds arrived in tonight’s finale, I felt as if a story was being told. Between the weather and the drama on the ice, I could see the narrative unfolding before it was packaged in such a fashion. It was the ultimate evidence that 24/7 is not in the business of manufacturing drama where none exists: The show extrapolates and highlights drama that is inherent to the game, and the Winter Classic offered a near-perfect narrative, if not necessarily a near-perfect game (lacking the intensity of the Overtime/Shootout scenario present in the regular season showdown featured in “Episode Three”).

“Episode Four” was a fine conclusion to the series, although I’ll admit that it didn’t have the same sense of atmosphere that “Episode Three” had. Perhaps it was that the crowd was so far away that we didn’t get to see the fans clambering up against the glass in the front row (or behind the coaches), or perhaps it was that I had followed the narrative so closely during the game that the element of surprise was gone. The episode ended up more a denouement for those who watched Saturday’s game, a way to revisit the event from a perspective that’s more likely to slingshot into the remainder of the season. It didn’t really offer any more information or detail on Crosby’s dazed state following a blind side hit, or collision, if we’re getting technical, late in the second period, and for the most part it was more of what we’d already seen. Some nice banter with the referees, some mouthing off during various skirmishes, and some “festering friction” (a fine bit of alliteration from Liev Schriber’s narration), which results in the ugliness that brings the game to a close. All were, by this point, typical for viewers of the series.

The difference, this time, is that they’re going to continue offscreen. When that ending hit, I realized it was the perfect end for HBO (and for the NHL, outside of those who feel that the swearing/violence is reflecting poorly on the league). It suggested that “We ain’t done here,” which is precisely the message the closing narration offers: This is just the start of a journey, and these teams will play two more times—the same amount of times they played one another in the series—before the season is done. The Winter Classic was “just two points” on some level, a fact which should have worked against the series. I’ve been concerned from the beginning about HBO making something out of nothing, about turning a solid rivalry into this epic battle between two superstars, but by the time we got to that final montage I realized that they had done something different.

The producers and editors took the stories they were given instead of crafting their own (as the promo department largely tended to), evidenced by the focus on Jordan Staal. Logic might say to not bother: Staal was largely a non-entity in the game, thus factoring only minimally into the series’ so-called climax. And yet in the larger scale of the season, his comeback is a momentous occasion, one worthy of both mention and recognition. It is a brief moment of narrative payoff in an episode that otherwise gestures toward the fact that this is not, in fact, over. The fact that these are the first two teams playing in an outdoor game to eschew the handshake seems almost too good to be true, combining with that ugly conclusion to send a clear message to everyone else that this is no ending. Staal may have returned, and the Winter Classic may be done, but there is much more of this story to be told.

That story has been placed into a very explicit rhetorical framework by this series. And yes, it’s a framework that has been instinctively Americanized. This was clear in the finale, where the teams walked to the ice to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and were referred to as a “Band of Brothers” in a bit of patriotic synergy during the final narration. However, while I was initially skeptical that the series could sell non-fans on the value of the sport, I’d say that 24/7 proved me wrong. With a keen eye for the right stories and with an edge which could appeal to fans and non-fans alike, the series used its unprecedented access not simply to show fans something they’ve never seen before but instead used glimpses of humanity and vulgarity alike to draw an unbreakable connection between the action off the ice and the sixty minutes on it.

A “portrait of a season in progress,” and an impressive achievement.

Episode Grade: A-

Series Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • We had a lot of great comments last time around, so I’m curious to hear from those who were watching the show as fans or non-fans, and how we all felt it came together. This’ll probably be the last time The A.V. Club touches hockey in a while, so let’s not let it go to waste.
  • While I thought the game stuff was a bit weaker in the finale than in “Episode Three,” I loved the choice to talk to the local meteorologist suddenly scared of being wrong for the first time in his career. Little details like that did a great job of showing sides of the story that we wouldn’t normally see and gave a nice documentary feel to the occasion.
  • Have to give a general shoutout to the Music Producer here with some really great use of music in this final outing, bouncing back from some earlier obviousness with “Burning Heart,” in particular, being quite fantastic. The classical stuff was equally strong.
  • Disappointed to see no footage from the “Legends” game featuring Mario Lemieux, but I guess the game with the staff will have to be enough for me.
  • Chevy Chase has an outdoor skating rink named after him?
  • Speaking of skating outdoors, did anybody else freak out when they saw those kids skating on a river when there was open water like 50 feet away?
  • Before the game, the Caps were apparently complaining about the HBO cameras, as they weren’t “actors.” However, once the game was over, Boudreau indicated that HBO seemed to have brought them some luck, so maybe their tune changed upon victory?
  • In terms of a repeat for the series, signs point to a good possibility: I’ve seen reports that the NHL is generally pleased (it WAS the most-watched NHL game on U.S. television in 36 years, after all), and HBO has shown no signs of discontent with the numbers (this New York Times piece covers both sides). The question now becomes whether the NHL viewed this as a long term prospect or a short term play at notoriety ahead of their broadcast rights going up for grabs, and whether HBO sees this as a sign that hockey is a solid draw or a sign that diversifying the 24/7 focus is in their best interest.
  • And how ‘bout that epic third period World Junior Championship collapse, eh?

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