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Neil Chiplen:

Warming up for winter

Neil Chiplen gets ready for the Winter Classic with a 24-7 look at the Flyers and Rangers

Neil Chiplen - Neil Chiplen Posted 19th December 2011 view comments

The American network HBO has given us some of the most memorable characters in television history. Avon Barksdale, Ari Gold and even Tony Soprano himself have called the channel home as they redefined our perceptions of what makes good TV.

Beyond drama and into sports, HBO has taken us behind the scenes and into the minds of personalities such as Floyd Mayweather Jr, Oscar de la Hoya and whoever sat opposite Bob Costas. More recently, the network has jumped over the boards to take us onto the ice and pulled back the curtain on the locker room as the 24/7 branded series has switched from boxing and Nascar to the NHL.

New York Rangers

New York Rangers

A year ago when 24/7 made its hockey debut we were introduced to Bruce Boudreau's sailor tongue as HBO chronicled the build up to the Winter Classic between Washington and Pittsburgh. Now it's the turn of John Tortorella and Peter Laviolette to trade curse words, as the hype begins towards the next outdoor spectacular between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. Compared to The Wire, Entourage and The Sopranos, the characters are just as interesting, only with fewer teeth and more bruises.

This season's Winter Classic will be held at Citizens Bank Park, home of Major League Baseball's Philadelphia Phillies, on January 2. It will be the seventh time that a regular season NHL game has been played outdoors. Both teams will be modelling throwback style jerseys and an alumni game featuring legends including Mark Messier and Bernie Parent will be held prior to the main event.

Historic

24/7 Flyers-Rangers builds the anticipation to this burgeoning New Year's tradition. It rides shotgun in Michael Del Zotto's ride and rests in a roomy seat on the Rangers' private jet. It lies down on the training table with a concussed Claude Giroux and crawls inside Scott Hartnell's helmet.

This is sports television at its best and unlike anything you could ever imagine in the UK these days. On 24/7 the microphones are switched on. Pre-game, in the game and post-game. Exceptional photography is as standard. Access is unparalleled.

After the black and white movie trailer that sets the tone for the series and for hockey as a sport, we begin with the commute to Madison Square Garden. On foot or on the subway, 20-something hockey players blend in seamlessly. Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan drift by and enter the historic venue and unlike the oversized NBA superstars they share the building with, they could easily be mistaken for office workers.

From there, the programme switches to Philadelphia, where the Flyers' major summer acquisition, Ilya Bryzgalov, is quickly established as the star of the show. The warm and fuzzy Russian netminder jumps out of the screen as a man who marches to the beat of his own saxophone. Privately, the perceived joker may be cackling and downing another bottle of Tigerblood as he enjoys making suckers out of all of us. Alternatively, his fascination with the "universh" and knowledge of the Chinese legal system maybe thoroughly genuine. Either way, his philosophy is one to embrace, drunk or sober.

Another new Flyer, Wayne Simmonds, is introduced sporting a black eye that would grant him free entry to any boxing gym in the city of Brotherly Love. Instead, he wants access to a new hockey rink where the Flyers community outreach programme is in full effect.

Artem Anisimov literally puts his hands up after scoring and then figuratively puts his hands up in the locker room thereafter. Callahan's father tears up as he considers his son's role as the Rangers' Captain and later there's another family reunion without a dry eye in sight.

Restricted

These are the compelling stories that we rarely see from the outside, in a series that takes emotional over technical.

The complexities of breaking down Tampa Bay's defensive system and any real "coaching" are left on the cutting room floor. Instead we are treated to the coaches in terms of their roles as motivators and momentum swingers. F-bombs land with regularity and Tortorella's words for Marian Gaborik are stinging, as are the penalty box confrontations.

The timing of the first episode has marked an unfortunate stretch for the Flyers, in which they lost their best D-man and number one centre to injury. Chris Pronger and Claude Giroux are victims of hockey's ugly c-word, concussion, and are now indefinitely restricted to a world filled with baseline tests and non-contact training.

The first episode winds down with an uncertain look on the face of Giroux, who knows he probably won't be playing on January 2nd and is left wondering when he will be.

Watch it. And know why you love the game.

Follow Neil on Twitter @neilchiplen

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