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For outdoor game, NHL outdoing itself

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / December 31, 2010

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For a league that has long been accused of lacking the promotional savvy to properly sell its sport — what channel is Versus again? — the NHL sure has been getting it right lately.

HBO’s “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic’’ series has been every bit the enjoyable behind-the-scenes bonanza for hockey fans that the cable network’s popular “Hard Knocks’’ is for NFL loyalists.

With the third episode of the four-part series having aired Wednesday in its usual 10 p.m. time slot, some conclusions can be drawn and revelations acknowledged regarding the methodical Penguins and freewheeling Capitals. The following get this vote for the three stars so far:

■There will be no “The Decision’’-style egofests in the future for the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby. His idea of a relaxing night off is — ready for this, TMZ? — staying in to watch a hockey game on TV with a married teammate. The concept of a grounded, humble superstar must be a hockey thing.

■For Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, a specific expletive is suitable as an all-purpose substitute for various other verbs, adjectives, and even nouns that we presume but are not certain exist in his vocabulary. He’s not quite the Rex Ryan of hockey — the charisma isn’t quite there — but, admittedly aware of the HBO cameras, he’s giving it his best shot.

■While the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin is of course dynamic on the ice, the captain’s “C’’ should probably belong to teammate Mike Knuble, who knows how to deliver a rousing locker room speech.

It’s the compelling cast of characters on both sides that makes “24/7’’ worth watching — and viewers have been tuning in. According to HBO, it is expected that the first episode will have earned in the vicinity of 2.8 million viewers, including online and on-demand viewing. (The final numbers will be tallied sometime after the airing of the series finale Jan. 5.)

“The cooperation and access we have received from the Capitals and Penguins has been extraordinary,’’ said HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg. “We are thankful to the teams and the NHL for trusting us to give sports fans a behind-the-scenes look into their captivating game.’’

The series will conclude with a well-planned bit of symmetry; it will air four days after tomorrow’s Winter Classic at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field on NBC, and it’s hard to imagine a better prologue to the game.

While this Winter Classic doesn’t have the buzz around here that it did a season ago when the Bruins hosted the Flyers at snowy Fenway Park, the annual New Year’s Day outdoor game, which debuted to rave reviews during the 2007-08 season, already has established itself as a tradition, one that gives the college football bowl games a legitimate battle for viewers’ eyes.

According to Bob Costas, who will serve as host, there is no question that this “has become an anticipated New Year’s Day event. At the first one, in Buffalo with Pittsburgh and the Sabres going at it, we benefited from the snow, that ‘snow globe effect’ that people found so compelling, and also the overtime goal from Sidney Crosby to win it.

“Then we took it to the iconic baseball stadiums: first Wrigley and then Fenway. Now, although we are in a new stadium and a football stadium, Heinz Field, we have the matchup of Crosby and Ovechkin. Each of these games has had . . . something different to make it stand out.’’

Mike Emrick, the superb play-by-play voice, emphasizes the uniqueness of the event another way: “We don’t normally do games that have low-flying aircrafts, meteorologists, and the threat of rain or snow that might affect the outcome.’’

This year, NBC’s “something different’’ is innovative for hockey coverage but familiar to NFL fans: a CableCam directly above the ice.

“It will capture some of the speed and also some of the scene,’’ said producer Sam Flood, a former Williams College hockey captain. “That’s the important thing, to let people know that there is something about this that is much more than a hockey game.

“We can move it up and down, along the boards, move it up in the stands — wherever we want to be to capture the event and capture some of the speed of hockey, which will be one of the fun things we get to do with it.

“We can follow a rush up ice and see what Ovechkin is doing as he brings the puck into the zone from an angle you haven’t seen before. We’ll do the same thing with Crosby. That should add something in addition to our normal iso cam.’’

Of course, for all of the fun technological bells and whistles, there is one overriding theme of the broadcast: the warm, nostalgic feeling that comes with playing outdoor hockey on a cold winter day.

It’s enough to turn even Mike Milbury sentimental.

“There is a quote from Bobby Orr about this day being a celebration of hockey, and that’s really what it is,’’ said Milbury, an NBC analyst. “For some of those who are old enough to remember skating on the ponds, it is a throwback kind of a game, but for many of the present players, they never played outdoors. This is almost old-timers’ day for young people.’’

That includes those who make their living in the game.

“I can’t run into anybody around our sport that doesn’t tell me what they’re going to be doing on the afternoon of this game,’’ said Emrick. “Invariably, it’s watching it. Even players who are going to be playing in other games on New Year’s Day say that they’re going to be watching it, too.’’

And a few days after the game, chances are they’ll be watching HBO to see how it all played out behind the scenes. When the NHL gets it right, it really gets it right.

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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