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Ode to hockey: '24/7' finale hits the sweet spot

by Bob Condor /
In the last moments of HBO's "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic" reality series, narrator Liev Schreiber says, "Hockey won't hold still for a portrait…you jump into it, just as the players do."

Schreiber is referring to how hockey players vault over the boards for each new shift, more often than not rejoining high-speed play in progress. Few sports -- and certainly no others that captivate North America -- involve the fine art of changing lineups on the fly. But hockey players are accustomed to the frenzy.

OK, that's enough about the ending of this finale episode. Don't let anyone -- not a single person, no matter how smitten with the show -- provide any more detail. You will be glad to savor an ode of words and video that, oh, well, OK, it summarizes the series, true, but does so much more to evoke the hockey soul. This passage is to "24/7" viewers what scraping skates and clacking sticks are to pickup hockey players.

Many of those pickup hockey players, of course, get their starts on outdoor ponds and frozen asphalt lots. This fourth and final episode starts out with the NHL's ice guru, Dan Craig, explaining that the outdoor rink at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh required 10,000 gallons of water sprayed in about 100 thin layers before the hometown Penguins could host the hated Washington Capitals for the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. Caps players Mike Green and Matt Hendricks add nostalgic comments about how playing outside as kids basically put them in Heinz on New Year's Night.

Hendricks said outdoor hockey meant playing games, not practice. Then he corrected himself.

"Looking back at it now, it probably was practice," he said. "It was really learning to love the game."
As "24/7" fans have to come to expect, there is an oversized hockey bag full of compelling look-for-it scenes in this episode: Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin's face-paint job for an outdoor practice in Chevy Chase, Md.; Jordan Staal stubbornly telling his coach, Dan Bylsma, and general manager Ray Shero that he is totally confident that his injured hand would hold up for the Classic, which would become his first game played this season; Shero with an uncharacteristic outburst that turns out to be funny; Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's raw and running commentary while defending his goal during a team shootout at the Heinz outdoor practice; and, naturally, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau continuing the unexplainable phenomenon of endearing himself to viewers (if not his mother) while sustaining a measurable level of profanity.

Sports fans will be all ears for the on-ice conversation between NHL referee Stephen Walkom and Pens megastar Sidney Crosby. You will equally riveted to hearing Ovechkin simply explain "I skate" when trying to talk referee Paul Devorski into allowing a waved-off goal. The microphone work throughout this HBO series has been nothing short of astounding and entertaining.

On a personal note, the "24/7" cameras captured the same old-time hockey feel of the Winter Classic -- call it the outdoor patina if you like -- that was evident at ice level last Saturday night in Pittsburgh. I swear if I didn't know better, both rinkside at Heinz or screen-side Wednesday night seemed, honestly, very much Original Six. Or maybe comparable to one of the table-hockey games we played as kids with sturdy metal men in retro uniforms.

It won't spoil anyone's viewing of Episode 4 to know that the Capitals win the Jan. 1 game, arguably fitting because the series' first episode left the team and especially coach Bruce Boudreau in more disarray than a teenager's closet. When Boudreau and general manager George McPhee hug after the victory, you can pretty much feel the embrace yourself.

"It's not the [Stanley] Cup, but it feels pretty good," Boudreau tells his boss.

Late Saturday night, both Boudreau and Bylsma reported to the media that their players and other team personnel were sorry to see the HBO crews pack up and leave after four weeks. No doubt, many "24/7 Pens/Caps" viewers knew that feeling when the credits rolled Wednesday night.
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