Our little league has grown up.
The NHL, which seems to get mainstream media attention only when one player clubs another over the head, is running with the big boys.
A four-part HBO series spotlighting the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals premiered last week in all its bloody, profane glory. Called "24/7 Penguins/Capitals Road to the NHL Winter Classic," it will continue Wednesday and for two more Wednesdays through the teams' Jan. 1 outdoor game at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field.
HBO has given similar treatment to NFL teams during preseason play but not when the games counted. Given extensive access, HBO's cameras produced compelling moments in the first episode, which can be seen -- minus the curse words -- at nhl.com and hbo.com.
Finally, someone recognized the rich vein of hockey stories begging to be told. Superstars Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin get lots of face time -- Crosby tries to be one of the guys with his toque jammed low on his head, while Ovechkin plays to the cameras -- but they have excellent company.
The breakout star in Episode 1 was Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau, a chubby everyman whose face was spotted with some kind of red sauce during an interview early in the show. Boudreau, who formerly coached the Los Angeles Kings' Manchester (N.H.) farm team, is under enormous stress as the high-powered Capitals spiral into a freefall, a dramatic contrast to the Penguins' prosperity. He's genuine and a sympathetic figure.
So is Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma, who's proud of the old wound above his lip. "I think it adds character when I see my scar," he said. "I was a hockey player." Nothing more need be said.
Pittsburgh forward Max Talbot is the class clown, the single guy on the make, and winger Pascal Dupuis is the family guy, touchingly torn when he must leave his young son for a road trip. And you have to laugh when Washington center Nicklas Backstrom, skating with fans at a promotional appearance, is scolded by a kid who declares, "Two in a row you've lost!" Backstrom is properly apologetic.
The episode included some boys-will-be-boys antics, such as Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury conspiring to remove the furniture from the room of rookies Ben Lovejoy and Mark Letestu and pile it in a hotel hallway. It's amusing and gives fans a fascinating peek at team dynamics.
Bring on episodes 2, 3 and 4. And a sequel. This is great theater and you don't have to know icing from offside to appreciate it.
FEHR IS HERE
Donald Fehr's hiring as executive director of the NHL Players' Assn. means Gary Bettman will no longer be the smartest guy in the room during labor talks.
Bettman and the NHL destroyed the union after canceling the 2004-05 season, getting players to backtrack and take a hard salary cap. Fehr, known for leading the baseball players' union through a 1994 strike -- and years of relative labor peace while making them rich -- is brilliant and not bound by ties to the NHL's powers-that-be.
The current labor deal expires Sept. 15, 2012, and Fehr said last week he sees a work stoppage as "a last resort" if collective bargaining talks fail. That's a smart way to begin, though a visit to that last resort might be inevitable.
Fans, coaches, and media who rely on the NHL's statistics system know that subjectivity often favors stats such as shots, hits, giveaways and takeaways. Any system run by even well-meaning human beings will have flaws, and that was evident last Monday in Detroit.
Kings defenseman Matt Greene, hit hard by Niklas Kronwall in the first period, wasn't given medical clearance to return for the second period. However, the off-ice official in charge of charting players' time on ice credited him with three shifts he never took.
The officials who tally ice time, plus/minus and other information answer to Benny Ercolani, the NHL's chief statistician. He said charting visiting players' ice time might be the most difficult task because they're not familiar with the visitors' appearance and numbers.
"It could be something with a new person or it could be they just blew it, too," he said. "It happens. They feel terrible about it. I've had requests to change plus/minus and we can go over replays, but for time on ice that's tough because the camera doesn't pick up on everything."