Thursday December 16th, 2010

By Stu Hackel

The opening shot of the highly anticipated new HBO Sports 24/7 series "Road to the NHL Winter Classic" shows the Washington Capitals' red sweaters tumbling around in a dryer. It's a perfect metaphor for a team in turmoil and the start of a wonderfully filmed and intimate look at two teams, the Caps and the Pittsburgh Penguins, on a collision course that culminates outdoors at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field on New Year's Day.

Each shot of this first installment of the four-part series is artfully rendered, each segment carefully constructed, each little profile of a player or coach insightful. From Penguins coach Dan Bylsma's pregame instructions to his team to the easy interaction between fans and Caps forward Nicklas Backstrom at an outdoor skating party, there is as much here for the casual fan as it there is for the sophisticated one. From a technical standpoint, this is sports documentary at its best.

The premise is simple: HBO has been given unprecedented access to film these two teams in the run-up to their January 1st game, which has over the past three years become a hugely popular event for the NHL. HBO mistakenly calls the Winter Classic "the sport's signature spectacle." Nothing is more emblematic -- visually or competitively -- for hockey than a team winning and hoisting the Stanley Cup, but HBO can be excused for its enthusiasm about a very special afternoon contest that attracts both serious and serendipitous viewership, and is one of two celebrations of the game's outdoor roots this season, although it is also just regular season Game 566 on the NHL schedule.

HBO has joined the season in progress, and digs into the day-to-day doings on both teams, starting in early December. The Penguins have won 10 straight, the Caps have lost two straight and, as we know, both streaks are going to continue. So the mood surrounding these teams is very different. The Penguins are shown as giddy and playful. They play wiffle ball in their training facility, tease each other while battling on video games during airplane flights, and transport the furniture from two rookies' hotel room into the hallway. The music under all this is light, inspirational and uplifting.

The Caps are portrayed as anguished, from owner Ted Leonsis to GM George McPhee to coach Bruce Boudreau to the players to the fans skating with Backstrom. This is a team of great but unfulfilled expectations, and its first-round loss in last season's playoffs may still be haunting it as the players grapple with their confidence and execution. HBO shows very little of the happy interaction that the Penguins display. The music that plays under these sections can be ominous and anxious.

Is that how things really have been with these clubs over this time or is there some creative license here in order to tell a story? It would be unfair to say that the viewer is being manipulated at the service of storytelling, but at the very end, the Caps are shown playing some riotous soccer. It's an afterthought in the film, but it could have been put there to lighten up what might be a tense time, even in the slump's earliest stages. (It has now reached seven games.) However, there is no mistaking the true emotion of Caps defenseman Mike Green on a training table, seemingly near tears, after his knee has failed him.

To HBO's credit, they have not made the superstar captains, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, the centerpieces of this first episode. Both players are given a lot of exposure on the ice, in candid moments and in interviews. Ovie is even shown shaving his ever-present stubble as part of his new endorsement of shaving products.

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But HBO understands (or someone with a solid hockey IQ has informed them) that hockey is a team game and they focus just as closely in this episode on those who are, as narrator Liev Schreiber calls them, each club's "complementary parts" -- Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, Max Talbot, Backstrom and Scott Hannan, who has just been traded to the Caps and is engaged with his family in the very unglamorous but very necessary task of finding a house to rent in his new town.

If any characters come off as the centerpieces, it's the coaches. Bylsma is a slightly scarfaced motivator who Crosby praises for his positive approach (unsaid is that Bylsma replaced the more caustic Michel Therrien two years ago). The coach can encourage his troops, but still be objective when assessing their strengths and weaknesses with GM Ray Shero.

Bourdreau, whose protruding pot belly under a red training suit gives him something of a clean-shaven Santa Claus look, tries to stay positive, too. But the frustrations of his team's poor play unleash a torrent of expletives that are so endemic to hockey's culture that HBO's mics pick them up from players and referees as well, affirming Gordie Howe's long ago observation that "Hockey players speak two languages, English and profanity."

But if HBO isn't shy about exposing some warts, it either missed or ignored some others. Ovechkin's poor line change against the Rangers in last Sunday's game (video) is not mentioned. They note earlier that he's in a scoring slump, but that's not all that has been absent from his game lately, and the fact that the Caps' coaching staff is openly critical of the team's character is only, at best, an implied criticism of the captain, who is, of course, one of the series' protagonists.

And yet, Ovie's show of leadership later in the Rangers game, fighting New York's Brandon Dubinsky to try to spark his team, is noted. In fact, that tussle is as enlightening as anything in the show: The video highlights from the game we saw that night on TV showed Ovie and Dubie exchanging words at the end of the first period, and the announcers speculated that bad blood flowed between them and led to the fight. But the HBO mics revealed just the opposite.

Dubi skated up to Ovie as the period ended and said, "You need to get that beard back, baby." And Ovie replied, "Yeah, you'll see it soon." Later when they fight, they compliment each other with a "Good job, buddy." And you sense that these two might actually be buddies, which Dubinsky told the media after the game.

Fighting is integral to hockey and HBO does nothing to dispel that, moralize about it or romanticize it. The players and coaches recognize its place in the game and HBO shows that and puts it out there for the world to digest. That's hockey and fighting comes with the package.

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The best you can say about anything -- a good meal, a bottle of wine, a good concert, a good hockey game or a good TV series -- is that it leaves you wanting more. And this 24/7 certainly does. When the producers show the Penguins on their team bus in Buffalo and the soundtrack knowingly plays Maxine Nightingale's "Right Back Where We Started From" -- the song that accompanied scenes of the Charlestown Chiefs bus -- as an homage to the movie Slap Shot, one realizes HBO knows what it is doing.

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