In the press room after Monday’s Winter Classic in Philadelphia, head coach Peter Laviolette praised the presence of HBO’s cameras in the Flyers dressing room these past few weeks.
“You know, I think the product speaks for itself,” he said.
Then he smiled.
“Yeah, we are all ready to say goodbye to HBO.”
Our sentiments are similar on both fronts.
Perhaps one of the best elements of the four-part hockey reality series that aired its finale Thursday night is its sense of time and place.
It is long enough to tell interesting, often compelling, just as frequently profane stories of life in the National Hockey League. Yet the series is not too long to make it seem dull and finishes with a natural end point -- the Winter Classic -- in the middle of a season that often seems endless.
A year ago when the first “24/7” series aired, we wondered how this would all work. So did HBO officials. And league executives.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals proved to be entertaining subjects for this first-of-its-kind hockey documentary after HBO had set the standards of sports reality series with its boxing and NFL training camp ventures.
The NHL and HBO set the standards higher by taking the cameras inside an NHL season. A year ago we had a front-row seat to an eight-game winless streak by the Caps. And there was more than a little skepticism from within the hockey community about breaking the seal on the normally closed society that is hockey. Yet, we recall talking to the opposing GMs shortly after last year’s Winter Classic, and both Ray Shero of Pittsburgh and George McPhee of the Capitals insisted they would do it again in a heartbeat. McPhee reiterated those sentiments in a conversation on the eve of this year’s event, saying all the cameras around the Winter Classic qualified as one of his top hockey experiences. From a hockey lifer like McPhee, that’s high praise.
More swearing coaches and gritty on-ice battles.
Yet aren’t hockey seasons or any pro sports seasons basically the same? Same number of games, teams? And what keeps us coming back are the stories, the belief that the sameness is only the same on the outside -- that it is always worth looking beyond to see the difference.
At its best, the HBO series continues to tell us hockey stories in terrifically unique ways and show us things that even those of us intimately involved in the game don’t see.
Like New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella’s touching relationship with Liam Traynor, a young Rangers fan who suffers from cerebral palsy. The connection between the emotional coach and the young fan, whom we actually met on the way out of Citizens Bank Park after Monday’s 3-2 win by the Rangers, made a nice counterpoint to some of Tortorella’s more memorable dressing room tirades.
For a fan of the game at any level, the HBO experience gives us the game shot through a completely different prism.
We watched Claude Giroux disappear into the “quiet” room after he suffered a concussion courtesy of teammate Wayne Simmonds’ knee. We then saw what could have been construed as Laviolette’s urging him to return to action even as it appears Giroux isn’t sure exactly how he feels.
That he does return in front of the HBO cameras and delivers a virtuoso four-point performance against Dallas is a nice bookend to the story within the larger canvas of the road taken by both teams to the NHL’s marquee regular-season game.
Often the most memorable moments are those that help explain the relationships between the players and their coaches -- and the players and coaches across the ice.
How about Rangers forward Artem Anisimov’s heartfelt apology after his infamous machine gun celebration against Tampa? It is a moment that vividly illustrates the bond that those connected to the game often try and describe and yet often fall short. Instead, we see it as it unfolds the telling grins, the apology and then the good-natured ribbing.
There is the frustration showed by Tortorella during a video session in Florida that is derailed by a faulty projector and the break in tension provided by assistant GM and assistant coach Jim Schoenfeld, who suggests the players sing a song.
Sometimes what this series gives us is simply a different vantage point, like the multiple camera angles as Daniel Briere makes his unsuccessful penalty shot attempt with 19.6 seconds left in the Winter Classic.
If there is a singular figure that emerged as a “star” in this year’s series, it was Philadelphia netminder Ilya Bryzgalov, who was revealed as refreshingly candid and thoughtful talking about the “hu-mang-ous” big universe and his relationship with his family.
Of course, Bryzgalov’s uneven play -- perhaps a function of all of the attention that came with the HBO involvement -- created its own sideshow something the Flyers no doubt weren’t pleased about. The cameras recorded Laviolette explaining that Bryzgalov would not start in the Winter Classic before the goaltenders were told, and then recorded Bryzgalov breaking with team policy and telling reporters that he was out.
And so Bryzgalov became an unexpected character in the team’s own drama, following his own script; life imitating reality during a reality show. Or something like that.
This is not a show without its flaws, and we can only hope that next year’s version (we assume there will be one given the interest from both sides of this arrangement) won’t sidestep storylines because they are awkward or don’t fit the like a puzzle piece into the narrative.
As my colleague, Pierre LeBrun, noted earlier in the series, the announcement that Chris Pronger, the team’s captain and most important, was gone for the rest of the season and the playoffs passed almost unnoticed.
And perhaps most egregious was the lack of attention paid to Derek Boogaard, the former New York Rangers tough guy who was one of three players to die last offseason (Rick Rypien and Wade Belak were the others). Given that the cameras pay such close attention to the toughness of the game -- including the fights -- it would seem a given that HBO would explore the issue in some fashion.
The absence of any meaningful acknowledgment of how Boogaard lived and died is a grand flaw in an otherwise enticing piece of television.
That said, is there anyone connected to the game who won’t happily tune in a year from now to see the lid lifted once more off the game at least for a time? Is there anyone who won’t think of “24/7” when they think of next year’s Winter Classic and presumably those in future years?
Certainly the positive comments from both teams once again this year suggest there is a grand appetite for this relationship to continue and for the cameras to continue to share the game in an almost always compelling, often emotional and sometimes inspiring ways.