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Puck Talk with Popchock: “24/7″ Does NHL, Pens Justice

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“24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic,” which premiered last week, follows both teams behind the scenes en route to the New Year’s Day game at Heinz Field. The second episode premieres Wednesday night on HBO.

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By Matt Popchock

Although my job compels me to be a weekend warrior, I must admit I am looking forward to this particular weekend.  Not just because it’s a holiday, and not just because of the various blessings that will surely come with it, but because it’ll finally give me an opportunity to watch the next episode of “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic.”

I have to wait till the weekend to see it instead of watching its original airing tonight because, unfortunately, I’m not expecting Santa (a.k.a. my local cable provider) to leave a conveniently-timed HBO free preview under the tree.  However, I feel my patience was rewarded when I watched the premiere episode online last week.

Normally I am a Scrooge when it comes to reality television.  It’s frequently vulgar and mean-spirited, and its creators don’t hire writers–at least not in the sense traditional programs do–which comes off as a middle finger to folks like me everywhere who have struggled to break into the media.  Not to bite the hand that feeds me, but I would rather have dental work performed than be made to watch, for example, “Survivor 32: Electric Bugaloo” on a regular basis.

Yes, I have been, for years, standing on a soapbox and trumpeting the notion that the reality genre is a dangerous misdirection for the industry, and that such programs aren’t worth my time nor my Nielsen point.  But watching the first episode of “24/7″ made me think twice.

The NHL is allowing the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals to receive the “Hard Knocks” treatment from HBO because, unlike the NFL, the National Hockey League is in a position where it needs to put its product out there.  The popularity of the league is booming after one of the most unpopular periods in its history, so it’s about time for Gary Bettman to sell it in an aggressive and slightly unconventional manner.  First impressions being what they are, he and all parties involved picked the right way to do it.

“24/7″ effectively tells two contrasting stories in compelling fashion.  The aural presentation is superb, and the production value is anything but cheesy.  Mike Lange and Joe Beninati, longtime hockey broadcasters whose voices probably haven’t been heard enough outside the niches of their NHL markets until now, narrate highlights of both teams, which fittingly underscores both stories.

The show depicts two teams headed in different directions, and in doing so, portrays the Penguins as exactly what they are: a fun-loving bunch who take their sport seriously but don’t take themselves too seriously.  Meanwhile, it portrays the Capitals as exactly what they are: a proverbial jealous sibling trying to find its way who, though seeing the Pens as a hated rival, also sees them as a bar-setter for their own organization.

Between Dan Bylsma’s pregame routines, Sidney Crosby’s on-ice heroics, Deryk Engelland and Alex Ovechkin’s fists of fury, and Bruce Boudreau doing his best Rex Ryan impression, this show does a fine job showcasing life in the NHL, showing the passion that the men who play, coach, and govern hockey put into what they do.  I’ve always shook my head at the very phrase “reality television” and considered it an oxymoron, but clearly there’s nothing phony about this program.

Speaking of Bylsma and Boudreau, perhaps what was most enjoyable and educational about last week’s premiere was the insight it provided into both men, and the suspicions confirmed about their respective teams.  “24/7″ demonstrates Bylsma’s ability to be a player’s coach and maintain a loose atmosphere, while still getting his guys to play their hearts out for him.  While demonstrating Boudreau’s equal hockey I.Q., we also see him as a harried bench boss at wit’s end, and the casual observer sees an absence of genuine leadership among his players when the you-know-what hits the fan.  Based on the recent history of both franchises none of this surprised me.

It was undoubtedly the most entertaining part of the show, though the most important part of the show was showing its participants as people.  Those who aren’t in the know when it comes to the world of hockey need to see how approachable its personnel are, to say nothing of their humble backgrounds…no egos, no hanky-panky, no arrests, no other issues.  No NHL player ever ran a dogfighting ring.  Just sayin’.  Anyway, in this respect, the NHL and HBO have really scored a big goal with the new series.

We see both teams giving back to the communities whose hearts they capture, and we see Penguin players spending time with their families.  We see Bylsma, with a smile on his face the whole time, talking about his own hockey background in detail.  We see Ovechkin admit he has a tough time dragging himself out of bed early to attend a press conference regarding his newest endorsement deal.  We see guys joking with one another in exercise rooms and hotel lounges.

Every good TV show leaves the viewer wanting more.  My own innate love of hockey not withstanding, “24/7″ achieves that goal.  There is something in it for new fans of the sport, there is something in it for closet fans, and there is something in it for Penguin fans, which leaves just one question remaining…

Is it Saturday yet?

(In case you missed it, check out the first episode of “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic,” courtesy of NHL.com.)

For more of the latest news and views on the Penguins, be sure to tune into The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm, Saturday mornings on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan, and also check out the next edition of the “Puck Talk with Popchock” video blog, coming soon to 937thefan.com!

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