Mike Boone: HBO series is great television



Without Bruce Boudreau along, this year’s Road to the Winter Classic might not match the original as a fun ride.

But it will still be great sports television. 24/7 Flyers/Rangers: Road to the Winter Classic begins at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 14. Circle the date, program your PVR or, if you don’t get HBO, start sucking up to someone who does.

HBO is the U.S. pay-TV giant – also available to Canadian cable and satellite subscribers – that has produced some of the best dramatic series on TV, notably The Sopranos and The Wire. HBO also has a sports unit that does weekly boxing cards and superb documentaries.

HBO introduced 24/7 a year ago. The series chronicled the preparations of Pittsburgh and Washington, teams that would play the National Hockey League’s Winter classic on New Year’s Day.

As the round-the-clock title of the series suggests, the HBO documentary crew was given unprecedented access to the Penguins and Capitals. Viewers went into players’ homes and behind the closed doors of dressing rooms.

Washington began the 2010-11 season poorly, and Boudreau was not happy about it. With the HBO cameras rolling between periods of losing games, the Caps’ coach exhorted his players toward greater effort, filling his dressing-room harangues with f-bombs that HBO, as a premium service, didn’t have to beep out.

Boudreau was the NHL’s Rex Ryan. In an earlier HBO series shot at training camp, the New York Jets’ coach came across as colourfully profane, a man inclined to call a spade an effing shovel.

Boudreau was like-minded, and his demeanour stood in sharp contrast to that of Dan Bylsma. Either because he was conscious of the cameras or just a low-key guy, the Pittsburgh coach came off as calm, organized, cerebral – three adjectives rarely used to describe Boudreau, whom the Caps fired on Monday.

Rangers coach John Tortorella could be this year’s Bruce Boudreau. Notorious for his temper and tempestuous relationship with New York media, Tortorella appears in a promo for the new 24/7 series opining that having HBO cameras around is “a pain in the ass, basically, and I hope you don’t take that the wrong way.”

The cameras will follow coaches and players home from the rink. Some of the most interesting and affecting scenes in last season’s 24/7 showed the players interacting with their wives and children. It’s fascinating to watch these ferocious warriors being human.

The new four-part series promises it will “go inside before they go outside.” Road to the Winter Classic will explore “the dynamic personalities and transcendent moments that elevate the game beyond mere sport.”

Wow, that’s some purple prose – even by the standards of a TV promo.

HBO says the Jan. 2 game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia will be “blue vs. orange, Broadways vs. Broad St., hots dogs vs. cheese steaks.”

If past “classics” are any indication, it will also be hockey vs. weather, with Mother Nature a prohibitive favourite.

And for all the tire-pumping about a bitter hockey rivalry, New York-Philadelphia pales in comparison to Canadiens-Bruins. It isn’t even as hot as the Battles of Ontario and Alberta or the Pennsylvania clashes between the Flyers and Penguins.

New York and Philadelphia play each other six times this season. Their game on April 3 figures to be more intense than the Winter Classic – and it will be played indoors, at Madison Square Garden.

Fearless prediction: The best part of the Jan. 2 game will be HBO’s take on it. The documentary series will benefit from the legerdemain of video and sound editors, who will cut hundreds of hours of candid footage into four tight, bright and very watchable editions of 24/7.

Last year’s series set the bar very high. But HBO’s sports unit is very good at what they do, and there will be great material from Tortorella, the general managers, Glen Sather of the Rangers and Paul Holmgren of Philadelphia, and articulate players such as Daniel Brière, Chris Pronger, Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Callahan, who is in the promo saying “There might not be a team I hate more than Philadelphia,” and Jody Shelley, who says the Rangers’ Brandon Dubinsky “plays like a little weasel.”

Four hours of f-bombs, bravado and comparisons to burrowing animals? I can’t wait.

Blast from the past: For the series finale last season, HBO cameras were at the Winter Classic, played in the rain at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Washington won 3-1, but the game is remembered for David Steckel’s hit on Sidney Crosby.

In the Pittsburgh room during the second intermission, HBO footage showed Crosby saying he didn’t remember being hit. Of greater cosmic significance, as subsequent events would prove, 24/7 showed a late-game sequence in which goaltender Marc-André Fleury dashed to the Penguins’ bench in favour of an extra attacker.

There was confusion and a delay before Crosby jumped on the ice as a sixth Penguins’ skater. Later, when we learned the extent of the superstar’s injury, I thought about that bit in 24/7 and wondered why a player as gifted as Crosby would be unaware of the game situation.

His inattention was due to a head injury. And Crosby took another lick, from Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, four days later. He then travelled to Montreal with the Penguins for a Jan. 6 game, but they sent him home.

It was a cavalier way for Pittsburgh to treat its most valuable asset.



Team Leaders