Thursday, December 16, 2010

24/"F'n": Penguins/Capitals -- Part I

Hockey is not a sport for the faint of heart. Who knew listening to it would not be, either? That athletes and coaches swear in the friendly confines of their locker rooms or practice arenas is not exactly news. But the takeaway from last evening’s first installment of “HBO: 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic” is that hockey, in particular its coaches, have taken “Art of the ‘F Bomb’” to unheard of heights.

We aren’t exactly prudes when it comes to creative uses of the “f-word,” so we were not offended by what was (by one count) 68 f-bombs in the hour. That qualifies as saturation bombing. Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau, who otherwise has the look of one of Santa’s elves on steroids, with his rosy cheeks, eyes a-sparkle, and quick smile, showed the dark side by unleashing a fusillade of f-bombs that seemed to become more intense as the hour progressed (and the chronicles of the Caps recent woes mounted).

Like we said, we weren’t offended; we were rather amused, as in “I would never have thought you could fit ‘f’in’ between those two words and make it work.” It is said that (cover your children’s eyes) “fuck” is the perfect word in the English language, a word that can be used as a noun, a verb (active or passive), an adjective, and adverb, an exclamation. It can be a term of endearment, a term of derision, an expression of frustration, a cry of anger. Bruce Boudreau seems to have mastered the word in all of its forms and all of its applications.

Not that Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma was less adept; he was merely more judicious in his use of the term. Whereas Boudreau’s use of the term had the impression of a buffet after a drunken crowd of frat boys were done with it, the remains splattered all over the room, Bylsma used the word as if he was sampling the tasting menu at a five-star restaurant… a little bit here, a dollop of it there.

But there was so much more to the first hour of the four-part series…

-- The first thing you notice is the first thing you notice – the sparse baritone of Liev Schreiber providing the narrative theme. Schreiber is synonymous with HBO sports documentaries, every bit as much distinctive in his style as the late John Facenda was as the voice of NFL films in the 1960’s and 1970’s. But where Facenda was “The Voice of God” describing “the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field,” Schreiber is more “like your grandfather telling you stories.” He never overwhelms the visual narrative or intrudes on the principals in the piece, and his narration struck a fine balance between having something for the die-hard fan and being instructive for those not familiar with the sport.

-- There were a number of interviews with players and executives any fan would recognize. There wasn’t much there that was especially illuminating, although we could see where the curious viewer would get a glimpse into what generally goes into the preparation, the frustration, and the elation that a professional athlete or coach experiences in small slice of a season being portrayed. We were struck more by the none-too-subtle production value of capturing the subject in close-up with harsh underlighting that, we suppose, was meant to give the impression of lights reflecting off an ice surface. It lent a somewhat creepy halo effect in illuminating the subject’s eyes.

-- HBO ended up having the good fortune of a contrast narrative to open their series. The Caps and the Penguins are two of the elite teams in the NHL, but frankly, a narrative of two great teams on a collision path to January 1st seems to us rather boring and trite. At the moment, though, the Caps are experiencing a stretch of misfortune that is unprecedented in the Boudreau era – a losing streak that would reach six games during this installment of the series. And this was happening while the Penguins were in the midst of a winning streak that would reach 12 games. The contrast was sharp and compelling – the Penguins, a team with three Stanley Cups (the last won only two years ago) and perhaps the most recognizable name in the sport going on the most prolific stretch of games of his career, on top of the world by steamrolling opponents night after night. Meanwhile, the Caps, a team of perennial playoff disappointment that had not been in a Stanley Cup final in 12 years, were mired in a losing streak, perhaps the best player in the world fighting the most frustrating drought of his career. You can’t make up stuff like this.

-- The fan who has never paid much attention to the sport, but has heard stories of the toughness of hockey players, got a stark example of it right away. In the early part of the segment the cameras captured Pittsburgh’s Deryk Engellland scrapping with Toronto’s Colton Orr. At the end of their fight, Engelland proceeds directly to the team doctor, who stitches up Engelland’s eye brow for all the viewers to see. While the doctor is applying the stitches, he inquires about Engelland’s hands, the instruments players such as Engelland use at least as often as their sticks in the course of a game. Three stitches, and he’s on his way back to the locker room, where he is singled out for praise by coach Dan Bylsma. Engelland’s role – and his example is duplicated among many locker rooms, we daresay – does not go unappreciated by his coaches or teammates.  For you fans new to the sport, that's hockey.

-- Although the theme in the run up to this series and the game itself is the competition between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the first installment of 24/7 was disappointing in peeling back any layers from either player or from their unique relationship from those hockey fans already have seen. Crosby was, as any hockey fan would recognize, a rolodex of clichés. Ovechkin was, as he seems to have become more recently, more guarded and more measured in his quotes, not the effervescent 20-year old who took the league by storm in 2006.

-- The more interesting contrast in Part I was that between the coaches. Each was a reflection of their teams’ relative states, and the portrayal of each added texture to what fans might already thought they had known about each. On the one hand was Dan Bylsma, who gives the impression of being something of a technocrat, sitting quietly in his office tapping away on his computer calling up clips of players in recent games. But Bylsma also was encouraging to his players in a way that might not seem in tune with the character fans might see behind a Penguin bench. His aim was more a “maintenance” role – keeping the players focused and keeping the momentum that comes with a long winning streak. We did not see much in the way of “teaching.” That was more what Boudreau was providing. Boudreau gives the impression of being a more vocal, a more emotional coach. Let’s face it, there are some who see Boudreau as a lovable everyguy who might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer. But listening to him miced up in practice, and viewers had a chance to see “Professor Boudreau,” directing players here and there on the ice, trying to draw on a store of hockey knowledge decades in the making to find that spark to end a losing streak. One got to see two very different styles, not in terms of the fleeting glimpses we get watching them on the bench or reading their quotes after a game, but getting a sense of context and depth. The treatment of Bylsma and Boudreau, two very fine (but very different) coaches managing two very different situations, was the most effective and compelling story of Part I.

-- The “human interest” relief midway through Part I was interesting as far as it went – a skate on the Mall, househunting with new acquisition Scott Hannan for the Caps, a holiday party at Consol Energy Arena with the Penguins though the eyes of Max Talbot, but it wasn’t nearly as interesting as what followed – the Caps struggling with a mounting losing streak (and an increasingly frustrated Bruce Boudreau trying to rid the players of their “woe is me” attitude), Alex Ovechkin trying to spark his team with a fight against the Rangers' Brandon Dubinsky and both players congratulating one another upon its conclusion ("good job, buddy"..."yeah, good job, buddy") and the Penguins preparing for a trip to Buffalo to extend their winning streak. It was the Penguin road trip that was the more fascinating segment. In it, you could see that these guys are, for the most part, still kids – playing video games on the plane (where their competitive and smack talk ways carry over from the ice) and pulling pranks on the young guys.

-- There were glimpses of what might come in later segments. You get the impression that there is more to Sidney Crosby than what he offers for public consumption. More than just a cliché machine who gives the stock answer to questions he has heard a thousand times. He appreciated the prank on Mark Letestu and Ben Lovejoy as much as anyone, and we suspect he’s not above pulling such pranks himself, captaincy or not. On the other hand, there is Alex Ovechkin, the quick wit and king of the one liner, remarking to a referee after teammate Alexander Semin was ejected for cross-checking Colorado defenseman John-Michael Liles and opening a gash on his neck, “he probably have sensitive skin, no?” It takes a quick mind to come up with that line in the context of the moment. Ovechkin has opened the window to this side of his personality before, mostly in commercials such as his banter with Ted Leonsis over a vending machine that wouldn’t give up a bag of potato chips or his disembodied head selling hockey equipment. But we might get a closer look at this part of the player as the series goes on.

Part I set the stage, giving the viewer an image of where these teams come from in terms of their history and where they stand as they skate toward their meeting on January 1st. HBO does this sort of documentary better than anyone. From the impressive video to the telling of a narrative, they are the gold standard. We can’t wait to see what lies ahead in Part II.

As long as someone tells Coach Boudreau to wipe the sauce off his chin.

1 comment:

Hooks Orpik said...

I agree, fascinating television. Four hours won't be enough.

One part you didn't touch on was the injury angle. For two organizations who are almost always ridiculously tight about injury disclosure publicly, it was incredible to see Mike Green undergo treatment for a knee or watch Evgeni Malkin's status be discussed. In a television program broadcast all over the hockey world, no less.

It strikes me as revolutionary for any pro team to show during the regular season, but for these two teams? Never would have dreamed it.