Posted: January 3
Updated: Today at 12:40 AM
Scenically speaking, Saturday night’s Winter Classic was the most spectacular sporting event I have witnessed in almost a quarter century of witnessing sporting events for a living.
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And I’m just speaking about the pre-game.
The change in starting time, from 1 to 8 p.m., was a blessing, because an outdoor event always feels larger at night. The skyline lit up in all its glory, providing a magnificent backdrop for Heinz Field, which exploded in cheers as the Penguins and hated Washington Capitals walked side-by-side down the runway.
“That was kind of awkward,” admitted Penguins forward Mike Rupp.
It was impossible to tell what there were more of — flash bulbs, Terrible Towels or goose bumps.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will never admit as much, but this game has become larger than the Stanley Cup Final. That is not an insult. It’s a compliment. The Classic has carved a serious niche on a day traditionally reserved for college football. It has breathed new life into the sport and captured new audiences in a way that, say, Vancouver-San Jose at 10 p.m. on Versus never could.
Capitals owner Ted Leonsis compared the ambiance to a Monday Night Football game. From this vantage point, the lead-up felt more like a Super Bowl. The result — a 3-1 Capitals loss — was largely incidental, as was the rain that sometimes made play sloppy.
HBO show is pure gold
This was an event, not a game, and here’s the ideal part: It will be that much more riveting when it’s run through HBO’s magic machine Wednesday night on the final instalment of “HBO 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road To The NHL Winter Classic.”
The NHL finally is figuring out what the NFL learned decades ago: Neither being at the game nor watching it on TV is enough. People want more. They want to hear the game. They want to know what players and coaches are saying on the bench and in the locker rooms.
They want an all-access pass.
They want humanity.
And they can’t get enough.
That is how NFL Films became so critical in fueling the NFL’s rise to supremacy in American sport. Hockey never had anything like it. The NHL was the sporting equivalent of a silent movie.
Recent advances in the televised product sparked a change. HBO might be sparking a revolution.
Dave Harmon, producer of the HBO series, told me hat an average of 2.8 million viewers tuned in for the first three episodes of 24/7 and that he planned to attack the Classic even harder than he did last week’s Pens-Caps matchup in Washington.
HBO’s treatment of that game was ground-breaking, particularly in the way it displayed Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby’s competitive ferocity. This wasn’t the polished Crosby we see in interviews, or even the one we marvel at — without sound — during games.
Instead, we were transported inside the glass and exposed to a raw Crosby raining F-bombs on a referee. It was beautiful. And contrary to what one might think, Crosby had no problem with the scene.
I’ve heard he was really happy with it, Harmon said, because it showed he’s just another player with emotions and intensity, just like everyone else.
Harmon stated HBO’s game plan for the Winter Classic included microphones on five players from each team, plus coaches Dan Bylsma of the Pens and Bruce Boudreau of the Caps and the referees. One camera was placed in the replay booth, six others elsewhere.
Among the ideal stuff from the first three shows:
• Boudreau telling his players in a pregame meeting that Evgeni Malkin was prone to retaliatory penalties — and then seeing Malkin take one in the third period.
• Boudreau ripping his team during a bad loss, dropping expletives at a rate that would make New York Jets coach Rex Ryan blush.
Said Harmon: When we got that on video, we said, ’We have to show this. This is fantastic stuff.’”
• Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and his accomplices rearranging the hotel-room furniture of teammates Ben Lovejoy and Mark Letestu. “Fleury is much more of a practical joker and character than we thought.” Harmon said.
“We knew he was a good guy, but I’m not sure many people knew that side of him.”
• Capitals star Alex Ovechkin eating a home-cooked meal prepared by his mother.
I asked Harmon if HBO tried to get home footage of Crosby or Penguins owner and NHL great Mario Lemieux. “Well, we asked,” he said. “But when they state they want their privacy, we have to respect that.”
Harmon stated nobody from either team has requested that footage be withheld. One of the keys to the show’s success is an experienced crew that has made the players comfortable. Letestu acknowledged as much, saying the crew had practically become part of the team.
“We might have some separation anxiety when they leave,” he said.
Harmon grew up around hockey. His dad worked for NHL Productions in the 1970’s. But, like his viewers, his eyes have been opened wide by the series.
“What I learned,” he said, “is that no amount of time watching the game from the stands will ever teach you what they state in the locker rooms, what they state during fights, what the referees are saying to the guys. Things like that.”
As good as it was live, the Classic will be even better Wednesday night.
Joe Starkey is a sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
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Submited at Monday, January 3rd, 2011 at 10:00 am on Uncategorized by ethan
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