Final thoughts on HBO's admirable 24/7 Capitals-Penguins series

Publish date:

By Stu Hackel

Some observations on HBO's 24/7 series “Road to the NHL Winter Classic,” which concluded on Wednesday night.

We mentioned while reviewing the first episode that it was terrifically photographed and artfully rendered, really a joy to look at. That didn't change throughout the entire series. If you're a fan of great hockey still photos -- and I'm thinking here of the classic work by the pioneer of color action photography in the 1950s and '60s, Harold Barkley -- what you saw on HBO looked like what Barkley might have done if he'd shot moving pictures. It was exquisite, or as Dan Steinberg, blogging for The Washington Post, wrote, "it wasn't unlike looking at art or listening to music."

HBO made great use of their access by bringing viewers into areas of the game that most fans never see: the dressing room, practice facilities, planes and buses, players' homes, meetings and strategy sessions, the awarding of the shovel and hard hat after games and -- as the above embedded video shows -- lots of terrific on ice audio of players and officials.

The mini-portraits of the players, especially those who are not the great stars Ovechkin and Crosby, were revealing. The glimpses into Sid's and Ovie's lives were interesting, too, if only for their depiction as somewhat regular guys: Ovechkin living with his parents; Crosby with his superstitions and unbreakable routines.

These are all dedicated men, not at all self-possessed, who love their families and professions, and HBO captured that perfectly. Their courage and resolve in the face of pain and injury is beyond admirable, but it's also just part of being a hockey player. So is their selflessness. Eric Fehr and his wife buying Christmas gifts for an underprivileged family, Matt Cooke's interaction with his kids, and even the Penguins moving rookie roomates' hotel furniture into the hallway to help welcome them into the NHL, these are typical moments for hockey players.

Some time ago, we wondered on this blog if the depiction of hockey players being normal would cut through this culture's fascination with celebrity swagger and self-promotion. It certainly connected with the hockey audience. As for the broader pool of casual non-fans, it's hard to say.

After the second episode, Kevin Baumer of The Business Insider wrote that the second episode "had a little too much hockey," and risked losing the non-fan. This week, he wrote that "'24/7' won't be able to make the NHL mainstream by itself, but it's certainly a gigantic stepping stone." Nicholas J. Cotsonika of Yahoo Sports wrote, "If there’s measurable growth (in hockey's popularity due to the series), it probably will continue to be incremental. But that’s OK. Even if you don’t convert the masses, it’s still effective and worthwhile if you cater to your casual and core audiences."

But Dan Steinberg quoted a tweet by Minnesota Twins pitcher Tony Slama that read, "Hbo 24/7 on caps vs penguins game turned me from a passive hockey fan into practically Canadian." And the NHL's John Collins told Rich Sandomir of The New York Times that “The buzz and feedback has been incredible from the hockey community as well as beyond the core fan to the casual fan."

Sandomir also believes, "It is more than likely that HBO will return for a second Winter Classic '24/7.'”

It's been said that hockey is the ultimate team game, and HBO generally did an admirable job of not overcommitting their time to the marquee guys -- with the exception of the second episode, when they dwelled a bit too much on Crosby at the expense of others. It would have been preferable for HBO to look more deeply into the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury or the Caps' Semyon Varlamov, because the lives, thoughts and feelings of goaltenders are not like those of the other 18 players on a team. They are a different animal altogether

But generally speaking, to see players, coaches, managers and officials in their daily environment was as revealing as a National Geographic special on lions in the Serengeti.

Of course, that analogy just goes so far, because while hockey has its jungle aspects, it also has a fascinating and complex cerebral side that too often went missing in the depiction of the action, especially in the third and fourth episodes that focused on the Penguins-Caps games.

We saw how the coaches, Bruce Boudreau and Dan Bylsma, were consumed with getting their players to adhere to a system or a style of play. Yet, once we were transported from the pregame or intermission dressing room to the ice, that storyline vanished. What we saw was not an illustration of those plans in action -- or even the failure to execute those plans --but chaos -- often violent, incoherent chaos.

It was quite reminiscent of what Nobel Prize author William Faulkner wrote about in his famous 1955 Sports Illustrated essay on seeing his first hockey game: "To the innocent, who had never seen it before, it seemed discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools."

However, Faulkner also wrote, "Then it would break, coalesce through a kind of kaleidoscopic whirl like a child's toy, into a pattern, a design almost beautiful, as if an inspired choreographer had drilled a willing and patient and hard-working troupe of dancers—a pattern, design which was trying to tell him something, say something to him urgent and important and true in that second before, already bulging with the motion and the speed, it began to disintegrate and dissolve."

But HBO rarely showed the pattern, the design, once the puck dropped. We mostly saw the discord and, as Faulkner described it, the recognition that "here actual male blood could flow, not from the crude impact of a heavier fist but from the rapid and delicate stroke of weapons, which, like the European rapier or the frontier pistol, reduced mere size and brawn to its proper perspective to the passion and the will."

And perhaps there was a bit too much of that, too, out of proportion to its place in the game. Yes, the threat of blood and violence is always with the players and inherent in the game -- especially between teams that don't care for each other (my brother loved the scenes of players getting stitched up, by the way). But the game is much more than that, and at times, it seemed that's what HBO reduced it to.

Did the Penguins adhere to Bylsma's pleas for F3 (the third forward in on the forecheck) to stay high in the zone? Were Boudreau's adjustments to the power play carried out? Where were the breakdowns that led to goals? How did the drills in practice help the team in the game? Did the amazing skills of these players show through? Did they break though the physical impediments in their paths? Here, the narrative thread established by the coaches was left dangling in the depiction of the game, especially the December contest between the teams in Episode 3. Instead, we got a slugfest or a mere compilation of disparate highlights.

When you watch or play this sport, it's the skill in the face of resistance that is most compelling. Or as Faulkner wrote, "It was the excitement of speed and grace, with the puck for catalyst, to give it reason, meaning."

But that meaning was too often overlooked at critical times. With all their cameras, access and resources, a chance for HBO to fully illuminate the game as never before was lost. In that sense, HBO remained an innocent at rink side.

It doesn't negate what HBO did right, however. And they did more right than wrong.

<b>Final thoughts:</b> The interviews in the above video were not part of the series, and there must be tons more footage that never made the air. They would be perfect for a DVD release, but it's unclear if HBO has ever put any of its "24/7" series on DVD. (There are some boxing 24/7 DVDs available in Great Britain, but they may or may not be bootlegs). Regardless, a Capitals fan blog, Kings of Leonsis, has started an online petition calling on HBO to release this series on DVD. Knowing that Penguins fans won't likely join an effort on a Caps blog, perhaps a Pens blogger will do the same. If so, feel free to post the link in the comments section.

I spoke after the series ended with my brother, Cliff Hackel (who, I'm proud to say, has captured the hat trick of prestigious TV documentary Awards: the Emmy, Peabody and the Dupont; he's the talented one) to get his thoughts on the series.

"The best documentaries find their stories in the footage," he said. "They don't go into it with preconceived notions, but find the arc of their stories in the footage they shoot. And HBO was fortunate because they had two teams going in opposite directions -- the Caps' losing streak and the Penguins' winning streak on top of Crosby's hot scoring and Ovechkin's cold streak. And I thought they did a great job in making the game come alive through those details."

He also told me, "I remember when you played when you were a teenager and I'd go into the dressing room after the games and I loved the scene in there. This was just like that. It really captured the collegial atmosphere, the tightness of the brotherhood that is universal in hockey, and probably stronger there than in any other sport."

(He also remembers scoring three goals against me when I was a goalie in our first year of hockey as young kids, and he'll be glad to tell anyone and everyone that story.)

Here are a few other views of the series worth checking out: Jeff Z. Klein blogging for The New York Times.

Tom Jones blogging for The Tampa Tribune and his story in the paper.

Pens forward Max Talbot on his RDS blog (in French and translated into English).

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis on his blog.

Steve Lepore, Puck the Media.

Joe Yerdon, NBC