December 15, 2011
Right from the start, last night's "HBO 24/7 Flyers Rangers" celebrated the brutality of the game: Big hits, fighting, nasty rivalries and the scars (and injuries) that result from them.
You know, all the stuff the NHL has been asked to slowly disown in 2011, thanks to player deaths, concussions, drug abuse and a general player safety revolution throughout its culture.
Myles McNutt of The Onion's AV Club found this inconsistency between the documentary narrative and the reality of today's NHL a bit concerning; indeed, the "ubiquitous brutality" mentioned in the opening monologue is at odds with the media coverage and the NHL's own player protection mandates: rules changes, suspensions and fines.
"I'm not suggesting that the series needs to vilify that violence, or that violence doesn't belong in the sport," he writes, "but it feels as though given the current tenor of conversation some of 24/7's aims feel as though they don't quite jive with the NHL's public stance on the issue."
Do you agree? Is this reality television that isn't based in reality?
It simply feels as though the media coverage of hockey right now - like this Grantland piece, for example - is more centered than ever before on the physical consequences of the game's violence, and to watch a documentary operating within that space skirt past those issues becomes problematic if not unexpected. I don't expect this NHL-co-produced documentary to start becoming critical of the league for glorifying violence, nor do I necessarily think they are glorifying violence (although, technically speaking, I'm not exactly a huge proponent of fighting's place in hockey, if we want to get down to my personal opinion).
But just a few weeks after the New York Times' piece about the life and death of Derek Boogaard, which is actually part of a series of tragic deaths of NHL enforcers that have been linked to long-term ailments suffered during their careers, there's something odd about seeing these issues glossed over, like when a kid asked a Ranger player "why do you fight in hockey" and it was elided with a chuckle — it may not be the story this documentary series intends to tell, but it nonetheless hangs over the proceedings, and is something I'm curious to see them grapple with as [Claude] Giroux works to recover in the weeks ahead and as we'll no doubt see more fights break out.
Boogaard, of course, died as a New York Rangers player; outside of seeing his sticker on the back of the players' helmets, there wasn't a word spoken about him. Which is odd, really; you'd think HBO producers might find the drug overdose death of a teammate fertile ground for drama. Of course, the NHL would rather avoid that drama, so ...
The coverage of Giroux's concussion was unavoidable: He's the NHL's leading scorer and the most important player on the Flyers outside of Chris Pronger. Giroux was injured by "friendly fire"; wonder if that made the exploration of his injury more palatable for the League?
McNutt's perspective is an interesting one because it was rarely expressed in the live-tweeting and post-show analysis by fans. HBO dished out brutality on "24/7" and no one seemed to have a problem swallowing it last night. The reasons for this are twofold:
1. This wasn't "Rock'em Sock'em Hockey," where actions don't have consequences. HBO didn't outright explore issues like Rule 48 or fighting or CTE, but it vividly captured the brutality of the game — think about Michael Del Zotto, head first into the boards, asking his trainer if he was bleeding — and its consequences. Sure, Giroux's injury was inflicted by a teammate rather than an opponent; but those glimpses at his concussion diagnosis, and the sober reactions from his coach and teammates, spoke volumes about its severity.
2. HBO's "24/7" works best as an idealized NHL, full of easy-to-understand themes and characters. You're either a fashion model in Manhattan on your off days or you're a blue collar kid from Rochester with a salty 95-year-old grandmother. You're either a stoic, introspective future Hall of Famer named Jaromir Jagr or a Cosmonaut wondering about the origins of the universe named Ilya Bryzgalov.
Issues like fighting and brain injuries are, frankly, gray areas. They're fodder for "Real Sports" rather than "24/7." They're vital, important, overbearing issues that overshadow outdoor hockey games; but they also don't necessarily fit within the broad, emphatic strokes of the HBO documentary narrative.
Which is to say that while important, degenerative brain diseases and player safety debates are also a bit of a downer, and "24/7" is escapism.
To paraphrase their tagline: It's not the NHL, it's HBO.