It was, I would realize only later, a genuinely historic day out at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Thursday. My Washington Capitals — our Washington Capitals — the team that every sports editor in this city has ever back-paged or ignored, are going to be the subject of an HBO documentary this season.
And HBO and documentary go together like peanut butter and jelly. It’s a gold standard in the television industry, and that more than anything else is why Capitals’ management is obliterating its Code of Omerta about hockey ops and inviting HBO cameras into the team’s innermost inner sanctum, beginning this December.
Imagine how insanely jealous Dan Snyder must be right about now.
I should have been tipped off to the day’s novelty by the arrival of local sports luminaries Dan Steinberg and Greg Wyshynski. Thursday figured to be a nondescript training camp day at KCI — the morning after preseason’s opening game, against the Bluejackets in Columbus, with the usual media getting the usual soundbites about the game in the can. But Wysh got tipped off late Wednesday night about HBO getting involved with the Winter Classic in some fashion, and Steinberg wasn’t at KCI to learn about nightlife in Columbus.
Quickly on Thursday I realized how ignorant I was on this pop culture front. Rex Ryan is the head coach of the New York Jets, I know now, and late this summer, I learned yesterday, he created quite a stir with his profanity-laced tirades in an HBO documentary titled ‘Hard Knocks.’ That program is not what will chronicle the Caps-Penguins rivalry and its buildup to the Winter Classic. Another property in HBO’s sports division — ’24/7′ — will. There a two excellent reasons for my ignorance about all this: ’24/7′ is relatively new, having debuted just in 2007, and more importantly its subjects to date have been boxing, which I told Steinberg I presumed was dead, thanks to Ultimate Fighting, and NASCAR, about which I harbor no small cultural prejudice.
The irony for me is that I’ve long been an HBO subscriber, a bit of a ‘Sopranos’ devotee and more recently addicted to ‘Weeds.’ Late this summer I began sinking my teeth into ‘True Blood’ (vampire porn) via on Demand. And also this summer I watched the HBO documentary on the early years of the Philadelphia Flyers, ‘Broad Street Bullies,’ which I judged to be exceptional, despite the subject matter. Anyway, ’24/7′ as a sports culture touchstone didn’t register with me, which made my on-the-fly education out at Kettler yesterday, and what this all means to the Capitals’ organization, all the more exciting for me. I went to Kettler yesterday to snap some pics and find a writing angle. By noon I realized that hockey in Washington was poised to rocket into the big time of American television entertainment.
Things got a bit weird Thursday afternoon when I saw Mr. Leonsis and George McPhee and television executives in expensive suits gather about the ice rink’s overview area for a press conference. Media was presented with a brief but illustrative video overview of ’24/7.’ That was my lightbulb moment, seeing the finished, highly polished products that HBO documentary cameras deliver. Those cameras are going to be inside our little hockey team’s training complex and rink in Chinatown, taking us to places no one in the history of media has for our sport. It’s remarkable and spectacular, and the arrangement figures to catapult what was already a shining moment for the league and these two franchises on New Years Day into perhaps a redefining, landscape-altering experience.
Seriously, hockey may not be the same after this television event.
The big buzz among media at Kettler yesterday was the promise of HBO delivering hockey to television viewers with all its soul laid bare. Which is to say, with all of hockey’s salty language included. Our sport is fiery and fierce, its utterances at ice level often NC-17. I asked the Capitals’ Nate Ewell about this: did “unfiltered” and “unfettered” really mean unfiltered and unfettered? You betcha, he assured me.
Another area of intrigue for media yesterday was the consent rendered for the project by Capitals’ General Manager George McPhee, the maestro of mum about the inner workings of his team. “George says no to everything,” Leonsis said with a chuckle in discussing the project yesterday.
I was standing next to Sky Kerstein of 106.7 the Fan during the presser yesterday, and he and I took turns peppering the GM about the implications of having cameras in the room, in-season. Wasn’t there the very real likelihood of distraction for the team? What about revealing privileged info, like strategy and injury intel?
“We’ve been pretty strict with access to our locker room, and we’ve always felt that the locker room, at the practice rink or the main rink, is really a players’ sanctuary . . . where they can work and have some privacy,” the GM said. “But with HBO, after watching what they did with ‘Hard Knocks,’ and seeing some of the other programming that they’ve done, they’re big-time, and we’re gonna give them unfettered access.
“We thought ‘Hard Knocks’ was great television.”
“There are some things you may not want exposed,” McPhee conceded, “but that’s the price you pay for doing it right.”
“If we give them unfettered access and it’s done right, people are gonna get the right portrayal of NHL hockey players. I think people are really gonna like them.”
McPhee also noted that his team has enjoyed extraordinary attention in just the past couple of seasons — in point of fact their trips to Canada during that time have not been unlike the Beatles’ first movements on American soil in the early 1960s — and that in the manager’s view has prepared them well for this special moment before special cameras. And whereas an NFL team plays just 16 games and greatly modifies its strategies from game to game, not so much in the NHL, he suggested. He’s really not concerned about any issue related to the compromise of strategy.
“With our games, we play 82 times. You give players three or four things to think about before games, anything more than that is too much. Most teams know about what the other team is doing — it’s about execution.”
The Caps will get a “first look” at the material that HBO captures, but McPhee insisted they have no intent to alter the creative development. This organization has signed on to this project because it knows what it’s getting into. The Caps trust the documentarians to bring alive hockey as they have other sports.
HBO is interested in this project not just because of January 1’s involvement by Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby but because Caps-Pens is hockey’s greatest rivalry, one that ranks among the best in all of sports. I wonder if the documentarians will ask, ‘Why don’t they play more often, as division rivals?’