24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic


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I don't know much about hockey. Didn't really grow up watching it even though the Islanders played in the Nassau Coliseum not 20 minutes from the house where I grew up. Around the year 2000, I took up playing in a womens' rec ice hockey league when I lived in Spokane, Wa. I had played field hockey in high school so how hard could it be? OMG. You have no idea the endurance needed to skate one hockey shift. I moved from Spokane, didn't pursue playing again, and so there's hockey gear in my basement. I've seen a few minor league games live, one Islanders game live, and that basically sums up my ice hockey exposure. Without the use of google, I couldn't even tell you who won the Stanley Cup last year.

I was flipping through the channels after I got back from Christmas holiday and saw HBO's latest new documentary series about the buildup to the Penguins vs. Capitals Winter Classic. I had no idea that on New Year's, the NHL plays a winter classic outside. This show takes you into the locker rooms, the practices, the games, the refs, the penalty boxes and the player homes of these two rival NHL teams. And believe me when I say, it is
riveting. I can't turn this stuff off.

Hockey players are downright intriguing. The same dude that's missing teeth and brawling on the ice is a devoted father and goes home to kiss his wife and play with his kids. They all accept that fighting is part of the hockey culture. In fact, they will even discuss with someone they are about to square off with whether the fight should be helmets on, gloves on or off, etc. They curse a lot. It doesn't matter what their native country is, they all know the f-word. The worst offender is the Washington Capitals head coach, Bruce Boudreau. I was stunned at how often he dropped the f-bomb to his players during practice, during the intermissions, post-game, whenever. It looks like HBO has gone back and edited the swear words from the program since the original broadcast. I wonder did the NHL apply some pressure on them to do this.

In contrast, the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Dan Bylsma, is more cerebral. Sure, he curses here and there. It wouldn't be hockey without it but he's articulate and calm. There's no yelling or antics. His coaching style is methodical. He's the real star of the show to me. A forty year old guy who coaches a sport where jaws are broken and black eyes are commonplace yet still goes home to help make Christmas dinner. His wife makes him wear padded gloves so he won't burn his hands while handling the turkey. He plays X-box with his son and does a little disco dance with him when the video game playing is going well. He is tough at the appropriate times and tender at the right times. When Bylsma is on screen, I find myself saying,"That's a man right there." In a world where men are becoming too feminized, in my opinion, it is refreshing to see a guy who has found the perfect balance between masculinity and sensitivity. If the Penguin players are the knights of the round table then Bylsma is King Arthur.


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Here's one last observation about hockey players. These kids are millionaires yet you would never know it. They aren't as flashy as other athletes (cough, cough NBA). They are grounded. More accessible. The top star on the Capitals lives in a fairly modest home with his parents despite having a multimillion dollar contract. These guys are taking pucks to the face and getting banged up like pro-wrestlers yet they accept it as a part of the sport. Just patch me up so I can get back at it. The coaching is much more hands on. Boudreau and Bylsma don't have a hitting coach or an offensive coordinator. They are on the ice with the players running drills during a practice. Just like high school. That's part of hockey's charm.

This 4-part series will be great for the NHL. HBO Sports has done their usual outstanding work. The editing, cinematography, and storytelling are excellent. It has made me want to watch the Winter Classic when before this show I had know idea what it was. Hockey often gets relegated below the MLB, NFL, and NBA but we can't forget how hard these guys are working. It's time we all started paying more attention. Now I just need somebody to give me an extra ticket to a Blues game.