Mike Babcock (Getty Images)
HBO's 24/7 hockey series is dead, but don't blame the replacement network, EPIX, if the new version fails. The problem started when players and coaches muzzled themselves last season.
If you followed and enjoyed HBO's 24/7 hockey series, you've heard the news by now: the marriage is over. HBO has walked away from the NHL. We'll still see a behind-the-scenes show covering the Winter Classic, plus an additional outdoor game. It'll appear on a carrier called EPIX in the U.S. and Sportsnet in Canada.
The "EPIX fail" headlines are unavoidable already. But I question if they're warranted. More importantly, I question why HBO left the partnership. Sure, the network insisted the split was amicable and that there was never an assumption HBO would cover the Winter Classic every year. But it's difficult not to blame the breakup on the decline in content quality – which stemmed from a decline in access.
If you take a closer look at what played out between the Wings and Maple Leafs last season, it's apparent 24/7 as we know it ended with the previous entry, the outstanding Flyers/Rangers season.
Mention 24/7 to a fan or look up a list of memorable moments of the series, and two sequences invariably come up.
One is Bruce Boudreau's profanity-laced speech from season 1 in the Washington Capitals dressing room:
The other is Ilya Bryzgalov's reflection on the "humongous big" universe in season 2:
Those scenes endeared viewers to Boudreau and Bryzgalov, because they shared one crucial trait: they were unfiltered. HBO had access to the Caps room immediately after an intermission began. As reporters, we aren't allowed in until about 10 minutes after a game ends. Boudreau didn't hold back. A Shakespearean monologue it wasn't, but he spoke to his troops from the heart, and there was something thrilling about it. HBO also had unfettered access to Bryzgalov's brain. He spoke about space and likened his dogs to beautiful women. He was a throwback, a hockey player willing to show his full personality, which is a rare find these days.
Ironically, however, by being so open, Bryzgalov inadvertently closed a lot of doors around the league. His comments made him something of a sideshow, especially when they continued after the program ended when he was benched for the Winter Classic. He played his way out of Philadelphia over the next season and a half and was accused of being distracted, of not taking the game seriously enough. 'Bryz' became a parody of himself, and plenty of people wondered whether he torpedoed his career because of his behavior on 24/7.
Including other players. A seemingly innocent moment during the Red Wings/Maple Leafs edition of 24/7, widely accepted as the blandest of the three seasons, summarized the new world order. En route to an outdoor pickup game, in which Toronto's James van Riemdsyk would play with his father, van Riemdsyk questioned if Dad would embarrass himself and be "the next Bryzgalov." That came from a player who was Bryzgalov's Philadelphia teammate during season 2 of 24/7 and witnessed the effects of the portrayal first-hand.
Maybe Boudreau and Bryzgalov are the reasons why Randy Carlyle and Mike Babcock booted cameras out of their dressing rooms, going back on their promises to allow HBO access. Maybe they're the reasons why the normally fantastic sound bite machine Pavel Datsyuk uttered nary a word throughout season 3, and why HBO attempted to sell us Randy Carlyle vs. The Toaster as entertainment.
The players, fans and media are stuck in a Catch-22 these days. When players speak freely, fans and media love it and love it to death, replaying it everywhere until harmless comments get blown out of proportion, losing the players' trust and making them hesitant to speak up again. Joe Thornton couldn't slip a hilarious, dirty joke into a scrum without it exploding on Twitter. I've had an NHL team contact me late at night, paranoid over including a funny comment from a player in a story, even though I explained it showed off the player's personality and made him more likable.
Yes, we should temper our expectations for the NHL's outdoor game series on Epix this season, but let me be clear: it won't automatically be Epix's fault. The network is actually available in 54 million homes. The point is, we should've tempered our expectations even if HBO had retained the reins. Sadly, players and coaches are too spooked to speak their minds anymore. If they did so more often, it wouldn't be such a huge story when they did. And if we made less of a fuss about it, they'd do it more often.
Chicken, meet egg.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin