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

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Next week, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin will appear on The Price Is Right, helping host Drew Carey give away a trip for two to the outdoor hockey spectacle known as the 2011 Winter Classic, which takes place on New Year’s Day and is the raison d’etre for HBO Sports’ 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road To The NHL Winter Classic, as part of a showcase.

And, well, it makes me wonder. I wonder if the people bidding on the showcase will have any idea who Crosby and Ovechkin are. I wonder if they did any advance research on the price of airfare from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh. I wonder how much they think people are willing to pay to sit outside in the freezing cold and watch people play hockey. Heck, even Barney Stinson would have trouble estimating the value of this particular showcase, as its “value” is very much caught up in America’s relative ambivalence towards the game of hockey.

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24/7 Penguins/Capitals is part of a broader strategy to change this. After league Commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan for American expansion was hardly the breakthrough he desired, the league’s broadcast contract still relegated to Versus and many of its newer fair-weather franchises (Phoenix, in particular) being courted by colder cities Bettman left behind, the Winter Classic is the centerpiece of the NHL’s quest for the American Dream. Meant to be comparable to the college football Bowl games played during the holiday season, the outdoor game doesn’t so much promote hockey as it promotes hockey’s legacy. The game itself is often plagued by the outdoor conditions, a novelty and not much else, but the real display is showing a national network television audience that tens of thousands of people are willing to freeze their asses off to see it.

A four-part documentary series, which will chronicle the journey of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals towards this “event,” 24/7 Penguins/Capitals is an intriguing beast. The 24/7 series originated with boxing, a sport which seems well-suited to the documentary treatment: It is a story of rivalry and individual competition, of training both physical and mental, and of a true spectacle of promotion and “hype.” It then moved onto NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson, chronicling a sport which appeals to the precise audience who likely have absolutely zero interest in the game of hockey (although if there are any American NASCAR/NHL fans out there, my tuque’s off to you).

By comparison, hockey just doesn’t have the same sense of hype or widespread appeal. While the Winter Classic is sold as a spectacle, the Penguins and Capitals are not able to spend the intervening months obsessed over its result: They have other games and other teams to worry about, meaning that 24/7 Penguins/Capitals is less about a rivalry and more about two teams who happen to be playing one another in a month’s time. The premiere discusses the tension between the geographically clustered franchises briefly, but ultimately positions the two teams as Stanley Cup contenders who are heading in opposite directions. The Penguins have won an impressive 10 straight (12 by the end of the episode), while the Capitals are in the midst of the kind of losing streak they normally save for the playoffs. (Sorry, Caps fans, but as a lifelong Canadiens fan, I can’t help but pour some salt in that wound).

There are three criteria by which I would judge 24/7. The first is how it works as a documentary series in the vein of something like Hard Knocks, which is probably a better comparison than the previous 24/7 entries, due to its focus on a team sport. And on that level, I think the circumstances have really paid off for the show. Because the teams are in such different positions, the show can indulge in the care-free glimpses of hotel pranks and video game trash talk with the Penguins, while dealing with growing discontent and frustrated intermission speeches with the Capitals. The two teams, despite both being positioned as Stanley Cup contenders for the sake of the series’ overall narrative, diverge enough that there is a marked difference in the kind of stories being told, which makes for a more dynamic view of the sport’s ups and downs (which are common in 82-game seasons).

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However, I might just feel this way thanks to the second criteria, which is considering the series as a fan of the game of hockey. As someone who has followed the game since early childhood and as one of those kids who played on the frozen ponds that the Winter Classic is meant to evoke, I’m the target audience for a series like this one. For people who like hockey, getting to see small moments like the players dicking around before the game’s about to begin or the way players interact with one another off the ice has value that it wouldn’t have for someone new to the sport. Getting to hear the conversations between players and referees and confirming that the leadup to every NHL fight is just an endless stream of expletive-filled insults is the “reality” that televised broadcasts of the sport are missing. It’s the way regular people play hockey when they head out onto the frozen ponds, and to see that NHL heroes do the same is a way of merging professional and amateur for a generation of fans.

And yet, if I take off my tuque and try to imagine knowing very little about the sport, the series seems like it may not connect as well. There is no question that the NHL, in agreeing to make the special and likely campaigning pretty hard to make it happen, considers this a promotional tool: They want more Americans to be aware of the game of hockey, and this sort of behind-the-scenes glimpse is one way in which they feel this could be achieved. However, while HBO Canada is touting this as the centerpiece of their Fall/Winter lineup, which could drive subscribers to their network in droves, its American namesake doesn’t entirely know what to do with it.

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Or, rather, they know what they’d like to do. Promotions for the special, including a lengthy 11 minute preview, focus exclusively on the rivalry between the two teams, and specifically the so-called "feud" between Crosby and Ovechkin. They want to sell it, in other words, as if this is actually like the boxing-centered 24/7, and you can chart two stars and their egos as they prepare to wage war. In truth, the rivalry between the two teams is probably not even in the top five in terms of historical conflicts within the league, and Crosby and Ovechkin are not exactly equivalent to boisterous fighters. While Ovechkin roughs it up in the premiere, he also does a cheesy endorsement press conference for Gillette; Crosby, meanwhile, says a whole bunch of incredibly nice things about his teammates and the sport in general and has to be saved from the one fight he nearly gets into on the ice.

You could see HBO working to relate hockey to American viewers perhaps unfamiliar with its ways. Fighting becomes a huge emphasis despite being a fairly insignificant part of the game in the grand scheme of things, with Penguins coach Dan Bylsma marked by the scar earned playing the game as much as his skill in coaching it. There are explicit attempts to compare hockey to other sports, whether it’s suggesting that the Capitals have found a following in a “football town” or the very notion that the Winter Classic is to be played in an NFL stadium. And perhaps their strategy worked: perhaps people who don’t watch hockey will turn to the special and see a sport that is more rugged than they expected, a sport which resembles great American pastimes in ways they didn’t consider. And perhaps those viewers will get sucked into the traditional sports narrative of the surging frontrunner and the festering underdog, and HBO has successfully shaped a story that transcends hockey’s lack of notoriety in this country.

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And yet I really, really doubt it. This is a show for hockey fans, pure and simple, to the point where I wouldn’t be shocked if ratings in Canada (where Crosby is a national hero) were to surpass those in America, despite the enormous gap in population. For those people who love the game, this is the backstage pass. It’s a chance to see the game how it’s really played, and to go behind the scenes of some really interesting political situations, like whether Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, nursing a five-game losing streak, will lose his job like his predecessor, that are otherwise confined to rumor and speculation.

But 24/7 isn’t meant to be the hockey equivalent of “inside baseball,” or at least I presume the NHL would like it to be otherwise. While it certainly serves a specific function for fans, its existence is demonstrative of the NHL’s efforts to pitch itself to the American public as something that could be heard in the same breath as football, boxing, and NASCAR, a sport that is not explicitly marked as Canadian (or European, I suppose). And so Crosby’s Canadianness is elided, and Mario Lemieux’s presence as the Penguins’ owner and his history with the team are ignored, and it becomes about sport at its most pure: two teams, one winning and one losing, standing in one another’s way, as they each work towards hoisting a trophy named after a dead dude into the air.

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It's a compelling story, one that I enjoyed quite a bit as a hockey fan who grew up in Canada, but perhaps not the story that will change the NHL’s image south of the 49th Parallel.

Stray observations:

  • Upon complaining that Crosby, who grew up in my hometown and who played hockey against many of my childhood classmates, was never once marked as Canadian (despite Ovechkin being clearly marked as Russian), I got some Twitter responses that Crosby has been resistant to having the cameras invade his private space. I buy that, but I still think it’s weird that they wouldn’t even mention Crosby’s status as Canadian Olympic hero and his domination of Ovechkin at the Olympics. After their feud was so prevalent in the promotional leadup to the series, for key parts of that rivalry to be entirely absent here seemed strange.
  • As if to concede that the bidders would struggle to understand the appeal of the Winter Classic, The Price Is Right paired the aforementioned trip with a brand new Hybrid. I’m sure Bettman’s pissed he didn’t think of that first.
  • If you were playing the “How many times do people mention the Miracle on Ice?” drinking game at home, you didn’t even get a buzz on. Disappointing.
  • Loved the moment early on when Boudreau explicitly acknowledges that HBO is going to spin their current losing streak as a particular narrative. It shows a keen awareness of the camera’s presence and of the reality television process, which I quite enjoyed.
  • “Mustache Boy” is maybe the one bit of team-building camaraderie that felt like it would connect outside of a love for the game of hockey, both because it gave me a chance to chuckle at Sidney Crosby’s inability to properly grow facial hair and because it was legitimately a lot of fun.
  • Admittedly, I do think that they’re going to have to find something a little bit more exciting than a hockey-themed version of House Hunters for their player profiles in the future (and I say this as someone addicted to House Hunters).
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