HBO's '24/7' series documents Washington Capitals, warts and all

By Dan Steinberg and Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 11:50 PM

For a franchise that once lobbied for more coverage from local media outlets, the news that HBO would document a month of the Washington Capitals' season was a national coup, a chance to expose a likable dressing room, goofy star player and high-scoring style to an audience of millions.

"I don't think we have anything to risk," team owner Ted Leonsis said after the announcement in September. "What's the worst that happens? They see a player cursing? They see a player drinking a beer after the game? We really don't have anything to hide."

Three months later, the team's ugliest blemishes have been bared, and some fans are wishing for a cover-up. This week's premiere of the four-episode "24/7," a series documenting the weeks leading up to a major sporting event, coincided with Washington's seventh straight loss, its worst streak in more than three years. Wednesday's hour-long show - split between the Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins before they face off outdoors in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day - showed morose players, tense interactions and an apoplectic Coach Bruce Boudreau, who used the F-word and its various derivations 31 times in the episode, including 15 times in one locker-room speech.

And while Leonsis still maintains that he has no regrets about inviting the eight-person television crew into his organization, this wasn't the image of the Capitals anyone imagined HBO capturing.

"Without a doubt, it's the Bad Timing Award right now for the Washington Capitals," former NHL coach and ESPN analyst Barry Melrose said on Thursday. "This is the worst possible time for it to happen to Washington. If I'm Bruce Boudreau, I curse the day I agreed to do this, because I can't hide right now."

Boudreau said on Thursday that he has yet to watch the show, though he already received a call from his 70-something mother chiding him for his language. Players offered mixed opinions, with some saying the cameras are an annoyance while others suggested that the show can help keep their troubles in perspective.

"They didn't beat [the bad games] to death, which was good," veteran winger Mike Knuble said. "They didn't really focus on them; they were just kind of 45-second segments. And on our end, that was probably pretty good to just kind of get through that part."

Perhaps, but the contrasts between the teams could not have been more stark. The Penguins, who were riding a 12-game winning streak in the first episode, appeared loose and joyous, joking at a holiday party, playing pranks during a road trip, trading barbs over video games and holding contests in which the loser had to grow a mustache.

The Capitals, on the other hand, appeared approximately as giddy as a toddler at the dentist.

"Losing sucks the personality out of you," former player and Comcast SportsNet analyst Alan May said. "It shows the humanity of it. You saw how the Caps guys were: not a whole lot of talking going on, everything's somewhat negative. They've got to live that everywhere they go."

The network doesn't yet know how many people watched episode one - Nielsen overnight numbers are only available for ad-supported stations - but HBO attracted 4 to 5 million weekly viewers for its "Hard Knocks" series about the New York Jets training camp this summer. And while a hockey-based show can't approach the drawing power of the NFL, the Capitals' plight is clearly being magnified for a national audience.

"If HBO deleted all the F-bombs from its NHL '24/7,' the show would be only a half-hour long," Newsday columnist Neil Best joked on Twitter.

"Bruce Boudreau has now become the hockey equivalent of Rex Ryan," CBC's Jeff Marek said, referring to the Jets' loudly profane coach.

"We are getting the coverage we deserve," Leonsis wrote in an e-mail. "We knew what we were signing up for. My regrets are to our fans for not playing up to our capabilities of late. . . . It is real; authentic and true. Warts and all."

The biggest wart, perhaps, has been the language, which prompted the Capitals' media relations staff to send out a parental discretion warning earlier in the week. While the teams are shown advance footage to ensure that no competitive secrets are revealed, General Manager George McPhee said he hasn't asked for any changes and has even insisted that some reluctant players wear microphones when asked.

Granted nearly limitless access, HBO's first episode featured more than 80 moments of profanity, and in various online forums, some fans worried that Boudreau's cursing - particularly during timeouts and intermission speeches - got in the way of any tactical instructions.

"I know what I'd be like right now if I was Bruce Boudreau; my language would be the last thing on my mind," Melrose said. "You can say it's terrible or whatever, but that's how athletes talk. It's not hockey players; it's athletes. That's the language of competition."

Still, this was a portrayal somewhat at odds with Boudreau's public image, which has included jolly one-liners and absurd local commercials in which he praises carpet cleaners and performs bird calls for auto dealerships.

The profanity "doesn't truly represent who Bruce is; if you were to sit down and have a beer with him, you wouldn't hear all that," May said. "That's not how I speak, but there were a lot of habits I had that never left that locker room. It's all part of getting your gladiator on."

HBO producers, who log more than 50 hours of footage for every episode, are already editing the show's next installment, which airs Dec. 22. And Ross Greenburg, the president of HBO Sports, said the story line would be bolstered if the Capitals can halt their slide.

"You always want an arc to a story," he said. "We don't want to be heading down a hill here and see the crumbling of a great franchise."

Which is obviously a goal the Capitals can endorse.

"This losing streak is uncharted territory for many of our folks," Leonsis wrote. "The pressure heightens as cameras are everywhere. But this is what we signed up for."

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