Judge Mike Rubino was at the Winter Classic, but he didn't see it like this.
"Hockey won't hold still to give you a better look. You wouldn't want it to, anyway."
The Winter Classic has become the marquee event of the National Hockey League. Sure the Stanley Cup isn't on the line, but the pomp, circumstance, and commercialism surrounding it has grown exponentially since the first outdoor game on New Year's Day in Buffalo back in 2008. It's hockey's Wrestlemania.
Last year's Winter Classic, between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, was the perfect subject for HBO Sports's award-winning documentary series. 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic is an exhaustive, thrilling, and beautiful look into both the makings of an outdoor spectacle and the human element behind one of the league's biggest rivalries. Calmly narrated by Liev Schreiber (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), the four-part series only covers a few weeks of a lengthy season, but it captures the essence of professional hockey perfectly.
It helps that the Pens and Caps provide a narrative that doesn't need embellishment. The two teams couldn't be more different: at the start of the series, the Penguins are on the top of their conference, and in the middle of a lengthy winning streak. The team's captain and face of the NHL, Sidney Crosby (Sidney Crosby: On The Ice And Beyond), is having a career-high point streak. These flightless birds, led by the steady coaching of Dan Bylsma, are soaring in the first half of their season. The Capitals, however, are tanking. After a stretch of losses, morale is at an all-time low. Alex Ovechkin, the Russian superstar and captain, can't seem to motivate his team to victory. Not helping matters is the oft frazzled and foul-mouthed coach, Bruce Boudreau, whose coaching style isn't quite as inspirational as Kurt Russell in Miracle. The documentary compares and contrasts these two organizations on every level, from goons to general managers, while maintaining enough objectivity to be enjoyed by fans of either team.
Moreso than the athletes, 24/7 is defined by its style. Better than anything the NHL has produced on its own, HBO Sports has given hockey a level of professionalism and drama usually reserved for those NFL Films specials with John Facenda. The use of shallow focus techniques, slow motion, and obtuse camera angles gives the miniseries a film quality. Edited by Dan Marks and Tim Mullen, the documentary has a brisk pace that skates from game to game, making sure to take a breather with personal interest stories and injury reports. With so much going on, and the team's schedule just as fast as the games themselves, this series deserved the Emmy it won for editing.
Unfortunately, for such a compelling and powerful sports doc, this release is only available on standard def. Filmed largely with digital HD cameras, the picture is vibrant and sharp—especially during game footage, and those beautiful establishing shots of Pittsburgh. But for a sport that has benefited greatly from 720p television broadcasts, it's a shame that HBO couldn't do more than an SD release. It's not such an issue with the stereo mix, which is more than serviceable—the series is outfitted with an excellent soundtrack. Don't expect any cool special features either; this disc is shutout. Wishing this were on Blu-ray doesn't make this release any less a must-own for Pittsburgh and Washington fans alike.
24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic eloquently offers a glimpse of the halfway point through a brutal hockey season. The 2010 Winter Classic wasn't the best game the Pens and Caps have played, but HBO couldn't control that. Instead, all they could do was try to freeze these two teams for just a moment. Weeks before this DVD hit the shelves, Crosby returned to the game of hockey after recovering from a concussion suffered at the Classic. Just a day before this DVD's release, the Capitals fired Boudreau. Already, these two teams have grown and progressed past what is here. The essence of who they are, and the game they play, however, can't be represented any better than this.
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