Wednesday night is a highly-anticipated moment for most hockey fans around the globe, as HBO’s reality series 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic makes its return. If it’s anything like last year’s, we are in for another treat.
Most viewers didn’t really know what to expect before the first episode of 24/7 aired last December. They had heard how good it was going to be, or had seen the boxing version of the series, but it was still like an unwrapped Christmas present – you didn’t quite know what was inside.
It turned out to be the best all-access behind-the-scenes view of the NHL and the players’ lives that the game of hockey has ever seen. Between the popular profanity-laced intermissions speeches from Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau, Penguins teammates pulling pranks on each other, mic’d up referees and players, or never-before-seen staff meetings, 24/7 painted a perfect portrait of the NHL.
“I thought it was a lot of fun,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It was so different than what this league has done in the past. It’s good to have a sneak preview into this life and how we are as hockey players and people.”
The producers at HBO couldn’t have written a better script for last year’s series between the Penguins and Capitals. The two teams were going in opposite ways as they prepared for one of the most anticipated (if not the most) regular season games in NHL history. Between Sidney Crosby’s point streak and Washington’s never-ending losing streak, fans saw both ends of the spectrum.
“It helps grow our game, which is very important,” Capitals forward Matt Hendricks said of the reality series. “They did an exceptional job portraying us and our lifestyle and the way we battle every night. I enjoyed it, but it was tough at times, too. We went through a tough stretch there with the eight-game losing streak, but we were able to bounce back and it ended the right way.”
With HBO cameras around the team filming every move every player makes for four weeks, some believed this reality series would be a distraction to the teams. According to Capitals forward Mike Knuble, that was not the case.
“You felt like you were going to be on there all the time because they were filming so much footage, and then they’d show one percent of it,” he said. “So after you got the hang of it and figured out how it worked, then you didn’t worry about it. You felt a little bit exposed with having cameras in there during our meetings, but by the time that stuff aired it was a week later and the game had passed.”
Hendricks added, “I don’t know if it was so much a distraction. I think sometimes you didn’t want to see them (HBO). When we were winning it was great, but when we were losing it was like ‘Enough is enough – I don’t want to answer any more questions.’”
This year’s series, which starts Wednesday night on HBO, will feature the Flyers and Rangers, leading up to their meeting at the Winter Classic on January 2nd at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. There are a lot of high profiles on both sides – John Tortorella, Sean Avery, Chris Pronger, Jaromir Jagr – that will make this great television once again. (According to ESPN.com's Katie Strang, Tortorella has already been annoyed by HBO following the Rangers around.)
As mentioned, last year’s storyline surrounded the Pens and Caps going in opposite directions leading up to the Winter Classic. This year it could be injuries. The HBO cameras were rolling when Flyers forward Claude Giroux sustained a head injury on Saturday, while Pronger’s knee/concussion status will be a main storyline.
In New York, another Staal will be on the comeback trail. Last year, Pens forward Jordan Staal returned from a hand injury to play in the Winter Classic. Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, Jordan’s brother, is currently sidelined with a concussion.
No matter how the next month plays out for the Flyers and Rangers, this year’s 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic will give hockey fans another inside look at how each team and their players go about their business on and off the ice.
“I don’t think any players really have anything to hide,” Alzner said. “Growing up, whenever I had a chance to meet someone in the NHL or see them away from the rink, it was just the coolest thing. As fans of the game, when you get to see that kind of access, it brings you a little bit closer to the game and the players, and it helps to become more of a fan.”
How good of a leader is Ryan Callahan? Is Ilya Bryzgalov, in his words, really lost in the woods? Will Tortorella match Boudreau F-bomb for F-bomb? Those questions will begin to be answered when 10 p.m. rolls around on Wednesday.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.