Early in Wednesday night's opening episode of HBO's "24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic" you get your first full-on whoosh of the "unprecedented access" promised by HBO and the NHL in this groundbreaking four-part series.
Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma is addressing his team before a recent home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. You are in the dressing room -- before an actual regular-season game, that's the groundbreaking part -- as Bylsma reviews a short burst of whiteboard strategy. Next, Bylsma moves on to the Penguins' 10-game winning streak ("11 is better than 10").
Cool, you are thinking. Then Bylsma announces the starting lineup, and players are cheering and woofing.
You are even more impressed. This is game No. 30 for Pittsburgh, its opponent is a Toronto team still trying to break into the playoffs elite. Yet these professional athletes are noisily supporting the five skaters who will play the first shift of the game, only to be back on the bench in less than a minute of playing time. And they are rah-rah, right there with a coach that is beloved for being positive.
There are so many lush insider moments in this first of four episodes (Episode #1 re-airs Thursday at 5 p.m. and midnight, Friday at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., plus more dates) that it's hard to keep up with the tally marks.
There's injured Penguins star Evgeni Malkin riding an exercise bike and watching a TV during the game, pointing to famous teammate Sidney Crosby during an on-ice scuffle. "Sid, look," says Malkin, smiling and nudging Jordan Staal, another Pens player rehabbing on an exercycle.
Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau talks to the HBO crew about the team's four-game losing streak (which grows to six during the taping and reached seven Wednesday at home against Anaheim). Boudreau explained friends are texting him to urge Boudreau to skate his players in practice "until the puke because that's what [legendary Team USA hockey coach Herb Brooks] did in 'Miracle.' "
Viewers will discover why there is a new "Mustache Boy" on the Penguins each month and how one earns the dubious honor, including which Pittsburgh player will sport a mustache through the month and for the 2011 Winter Classic that will be the finale episode for "24/7" on Jan. 5.
You see new Capitals defenseman Scott Hannan house-hunting because he was traded to Washington just in time for the losing streak. Viewers also get to listen in as Bylsma and Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero grade players on the morning after each game; you learn Matt Cooke is just a 2 on a five-point scale while Deryk Engelland earned a 3.5 in part because he fought one of the Leafs. On a lighter note, the HBO cameras effectively tell the story of a PG-rated practical joke played by Penguins veterans on a couple of newbies to the team.
There is lots more here for sports fans of all stripes who want to see how teams click or, at least this week, sputter. The series is not just for hockey fans, who will no doubt be smitten by the phalanx of storylines and scenes during just the first of four weeks that HBO cameras will follow both teams. "24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic" goes more to both how teams calibrate from game to game and how individual players and coaches react to the rigors and pressures of their jobs.
Some morsels hard for any sports fans to resist: Learn who sits next to Crosby on every team flight, how many straight postseasons Caps owner Ted Leonsis expects his team to make, what the New York Rangers' Brandon Dubinsky and Washington megastar Alexander Ovechkin say to each other after a scrap that sends both to the penalty box (helpfully captioned by HBO so you work through any effects of mouth guards).
One more thing: Listen close enough and you will even learn a tactic about how to score on New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist, or at least get the perennial all-star out of his comfort zone.
HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg has said he expects a number of Capitals and Penguins personnel to become major characters in the "24/7" narrative over the four Wednesdays of the reality series. Clearly, Boudreau is a leading man in the first episode -- like it or not. He is captured in the HBO lenses trying several different approaches to rev up his team, typically a front-runner in the NHL's Eastern Conference.
Boudreau starts high-volume and profane, then drops some decibels to be encouraging and, well, still profane (telling the Caps they played a solid game in loss No. 5). Then Boudreau goes back to supersonic level and, wait for it, more profanity during a timeout with Ovi and company taking a drubbing from the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
It all adds up to plot twists for next week's episode that HBO could only dream about when first planning the reality series. Can Boudreau get his team out of a deepening canyon, especially to lift up the offensive production of Ovechkin and fellow Russian Alexander Semin? It is possible that Crosby continues notching a least one point per game and generally looking like the World's Perfect Hockey Player and Even More Perfect Teammate? What might Talbot or fellow Quebecer Pascal Dupuis say next to make you laugh or realize that hockey players can be guys you would be happy to know as friends or neighbors or co-workers? And what about Ovi, who shaves in only a towel during Episode No. 1 among other HBO interactions -- when will he break out in the show much like he likely will do soon on the ice?
Plus, next week's episode will set up the first meeting of the season for the palpable Pens-Caps rivalry, highlighted by Sid-Ovi but now, props to HBO, giving fans some added juice with Bylsma-Boudreau behind the benches. Episode No. 1 provides 60 minutes of reasons to tune in next week.