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Reflecting on the Winter Classic

by Jake Kring-Schreifels
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Looking back at HBO’s 24/7 series and its effect on the sport of hockey

It was quite a spectacle. Not just that Citizens Bank Park, the home of the Phillies, became engulfed in orange and black, nor simply that a baseball stadium became undistinguishable, transforming into a hockey venue. No, it was the fact that the Winter Classic, for one day, made hockey the most exciting sport in the world: a clashing of rivals, connections with unpopular players, and an intense understanding and appreciation of the “fourth sport” in America.

Now, a few weeks removed, it has fallen back into the minutia of the sports world, taking a back seat to the NFL playoffs and early NBA season. But it is also a testament to how HBO sports, for at least four weeks, can make hockey relevant for the entire month of December. This isn’t a hidden advertisement for HBO, though it certainly could be; rather, it’s a testament to how a network can bring an intimate understanding of athletes in un-accessed territory, to humanize a sport that at times can be savage. 

In order to present this privileged exposure, invasive measures had to be reached. Cameras and microphones became an integral part of both the Flyers’ and Rangers’ lives, undeniably visible vices that with time became part of the locker room environment.  It has become a sign of the modern age in which we live, more access and more technology. A stark contrast to the “Broad Street Bullies” and “Broadway Blue Shirts” of old, who got to rekindle their rivalry in the Winter Classic Alumni Game on New Year’s Eve. It’s the same game, but the hysteria surrounding the current teams has completely changed. 

Some ex-players have seen it as a distraction, claiming that players are not completely authentic when the camera goes on. 

 “The whole thing is so much more public now, with Twitter and everything, and there’s so much more information out there,” said ex-Flyer Dave Poulin, reflecting on how his team would have handled the numerous media. “We had a private side to us that was part of our success, and it would have changed the dynamics of that. I like watching it as a fan, but I don’t know if you’re ever quite the same when the camera is rolling and the microphones are on. I don’t know if human nature allows you to be.”

Former Ranger Matthieu Schneider had some personal experience with reality TV during his professional stint.  

“Back in Detroit in 2003 they did a documentary around the trade deadline. The cameras were around everywhere, and I was traded to Detroit that year,” said Schneider. “It was neat to go back and watch it. You kind of get used to it. In the beginning when it’s new you’re always thinking about it. But once they’re around for a few days and you know they’re around, you’re a little more cautious about what you’re saying. But it becomes second nature.”

That seems to be the common understanding. Give it some time, and then the cameramen will feel nonexistent. It seems hard to fathom, but HBO has become a leading example of how to remain a minimal disturbance in the daily grind and flow of a sports team. 

Bobby Clarke, former Flyers great, agrees. “This is such a different era, different players, different everything, so what they do now they never would have been able to do in my day. But they do it better and everybody’s happy with it so they’re doing it right, it’s great.”

It’s hard to argue with the success that the HBO 24/7 special and Winter Classic have achieved. It has made New Year’s Day, or at least in this year’s case, January 2nd, a Super Bowl type atmosphere. The truth of the matter is that it’s just another regular season game. Two points for the taking. The losing team understands this concept a little more. Yet, it’s so hard to deny the unifying ability of HBO and the culmination of a four week build-up into something spectacular.  

“We all had the opportunity to watch last year, and I think it’s good for the game of hockey - not only for the hardcore fans but the casual fans,” said Flyers GM Paul Holmgren.  “A lot of people have asked me if they’re [HBO] intrusive, but they’ve been great. A lot of times there’s nine, ten people with us on a daily basis and they blend right in, and they build relationships with our players and some of the staff that they’re around frequently.”

The show also has captivated the interest not just of fans, but of the players themselves. In one of the episodes, some of the Flyers were taped watching the show in their hotel, laughing at themselves on camera. Others used it as an opportunity to strategize and boil up some more hatred. 

The latter applied to Flyers phenom forward Claude Giroux, who approached the 24/7 series as a chance to intensify an age-old rivalry. 

“I had a couple of chances to watch some episodes and look at what they were doing,” Giroux said. “Every game we’ve played against them this year, there’s a lot of hype because HBO is there, so you kind of want to win those games. Now that we’re losing every game we play against them it kind of makes me hate them a little bit more.”

 It’s a noticeable dichotomy, listening to the alumni and the current hockey players. It’s also a statement on how newer technology has changed a team’s chemistry. Certainly, teams thirty or forty years ago could not imagine cameras and TV specials being a part of their locker room experience. But as media adapts, so must players, as long as the integrity of the experience remains.  So far, it has.

“HBO did a tremendous job with handling themselves with a ton of class and a ton of respect to our organization,” said Flyers Head Coach Peter Laviolette.

“The people doing it certainly understand how they need to handle themselves,” added Rangers Head Coach John Tortorella. “The players loved it. It’s such a great experience, and I look at some of the family things that these players are going to be able to have on film with their family at such a young age when they grow up and to see this, its great stuff. It’s a first class outfit as far as how they went about their business.”

High praise from two austere, hard-shelled coaches. As the series expands, however, don’t be surprised to see more teams and coaches willing to let this happen. At a certain point, people within the sport of hockey realize that anything to help promote their sport and gain more from an audience is a good thing, even if it means some minor disruptions. At least for four weeks, seeing a Rangers or Flyers box score has some context to it. They aren’t just names, but people whose histories we know, whose families we’ve seen, and whose daily routines we’ve become associated with.

Still, like spending too much time with the in-laws, a month with the 24/7 crew was more than enough, especially for Coach Peter Laviolette.

“Yep, we’re all ready to say goodbye to HBO.”