The Winter Classic has arguably become the National Hockey League's most popular event. Despite the fact that it occurs nearly six months before season's end, it attracts more viewers and fanfare than both the All-Star Game and the Stanley Cup Finals.
For Rangers' fans who have watched four Winter Classics go by, watching other teams take center stage, this year's Classic is going to be special, as the Broadway Blueshirts will travel to Citizens Bank Park to take on the Philadelphia Flyers.
Perhaps even more exciting than the actual event, however, will be the airing of HBO's four-part miniseries 24/7, featuring an in-depth look into the locker room atmosphere and player personalities of both the Flyers and the Rangers.
As annoying as it may have been to watch HBO and the NHL drool over Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin in last year's 24/7 series, we were all glued to our television sets bearing witness to perhaps the most revealing and captivating behind the scenes sports action ever seen on TV. This year the cameras belong to our team and and we all wait in anticipation to learn more about the players we follow through a grueling 82-game season.
What personalities will rise to the forefront? What locker room hijinks will draw attention? What players will we look at differently? Are there players we might grow to dislike? Only time will tell, but for now I give you the six things that most Rangers' fans will want to see from their team and the HBO producers on next month's 24/7.
I'm sorry, but the prevailing image I will always have of last year's 24/7 series is the constant close-up on Bruce Boudreau's face, which was not very flattering to the say the least. The guy came off as an absolute monster, cursing, fumbling his words and forcing conviction in a way that made you wonder how the guy even had a job in this league.
Dan Bylsma, on the other hand, came off as a good-natured, wholesome family man who became very difficult to dislike despite the fact that he his the coach of an arch-rival. Bylsma, however, never seemed to develop a personality and gave the producers very little to work with as the show moved along. I expect much of the same from Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, who comes off as very dull and uninteresting.
Up steps John Tortorella, the fiery Italian guy from Massachusetts who is never afraid to speak his mind. If the small snippets we catch from daily interviews are any indication, then we are in for a real treat. Tortorella will divulge his thoughts on anything about anybody no matter how negative they might be. I fully expect him to rile up his own players as well as those on other teams, and is my pick to be the star of this year's 24/7 series.
The saga of Sean Avery in New York is well documented. The love affair with Rangers' fans combined with the hatred drawn from the rest of the league is almost unprecedented in sports. Whether he is infamously waving his stick in front of Martin Brodeur, turtling in a fight or dishing out some "sloppy seconds," Avery can do no wrong by the Garden faithful.
Deep down, however, we all know that No. 16 is probably not a nice guy. As much as we do not want to admit it to ourselves, we root for a villain. The guy is loathed by every opposing player, broadcaster and analyst across the NHL with no exceptions. He has been run out of both Los Angeles and Dallas and has made more than a few questionable disparaging comments about other players throughout his career.
In spite of his faults, however, we love him and his teammates love him. Or do they? Back in the 2008 playoff series against the New Jersey Devils, Chris Drury very visibly went out of his way on the ice to yell at Avery during the infamous "Avery-rule" stick-waving incident.
Before becoming the coach of the Rangers, John Tortorella publicly stated the Avery did not belong in the NHL. Even now, Tortorella has made it clear that he thinks very little of his role as an agitator and a pest. Avery constantly sits alone on the end of the bench, and although he brings a ton of enthusiasm to the ice, he never seems to interact with any of his teammates.
Should we as fans be upset by this? Perhaps. I think it is only natural to want all of the players on the team you root for to get along, especially one as beloved as Sean Avery. I am by no means implying that he is a destructive force in the locker room. I think the prevailing wisdom would suggest that he probably just goes about his business mostly ignored by teammates who disagree with his antics or do not mesh with his personality.
I think Rangers' fans hope that 24/7 will provide a glimpse of a Sean Avery that can just be on the boys. We want to see that behind the fashion internships, the controversial comments and the loud mouth is a guy that is respected amongst his peers. Deep down, we want guys like Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Dan Girardi to love Avery as much as we do.
Wishful thinking? Maybe, but at the very least HBO, please do not make this the anti-Sean Avery show.
With apologies to Sean Avery, who is usually ignored by other players, Brandon Dubinsky is probably the Rangers' player who most effectively runs his mouth and gets under the skin of other star players. He acts like a bit of a punk on the ice and has dropped the gloves repeatedly with guys like Mike Richards and Alex Ovechkin.
Dubinsky needs to be the guy to bring the drama of 24/7 to the next level: trash talk, nasty hits, genuine animosity. In the show preview that aired last week, Dubinsky referred to Scott Hartnell his "least favorite player on the Flyers." Come on, Brandon, you can do better than that.
In the past few days, Dubinsky has found himself in a war of words with Flyers enforcer Jody Shelley, calling him a goon that is simply "not good at hockey." It's a start, but he needs to start getting after some of the Flyers bigger name players: Danny Briere, Chris Pronger, Claude Giroux. Expose the ghosts in their closet, make fun of their mothers and smile for the camera.
Like the playing of Sweet Caroline in the Jaromir Jagr era, the awarding of the Broadway Hat to the most deserving player following a win has become a tradition of this Rangers team. As silly and meaningless as the tradition might seem, I truly believe that it has been a contributing factor to the team's success.
The Hat was purchased by newcomer Brad Richards during the Rangers trip to Europe to begin the season. Richards was also responsible for starting the tradition, bestowing the Hat upon Henrik Lundqvist following his 4-0 shutout victory in Vancouver earlier this season.
In my opinion, the Hat has been representative of the smooth transition that Richards has made into the Rangers' clubhouse. It is an object that has come to symbolize the leadership that he has brought to this team and the respect that he has garnered from an already close-knit and young Rangers team.
Intended or not, the Hat has fostered a relaxed and fun environment in the Rangers locker room, as each player will sooner or later enjoy the exploits of the Hat's Twitter account. In certain instances, the awarding of the Hat has provided a much needed confidence boost for struggling players, as was the case for Jeff Woywitka and Artem Anisimov.
The 82-game season can be a grind and it is important for teams to build unity and camaraderie amongst one another. For this team, it seems as though the Broadway hat has done the trick.
As of the date this article was published the Rangers lead the entire NHL in points per games played. They are coming together as a unit with young players meshing nicely with timely free agent acquisitions and an all-world goaltender. All this, however, without the services of arguably their most important skater, Marc Staal.
The absence of Staal has allowed the resiliency of this Rangers team to come to the forefront. The emergence of Dan Girardi as the team's shutdown defensemen has been a revelation and fact that this team has not missed a step, and perhaps even improved, is simply astonishing.
In the same way that a hurt Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin would be the talk of a 24/7 series, the absence of Marc Staal during the first half of the season is something that much be acknowledged and highlighted.
The HBO cameras have been rolling since the beginning of the season, but they will undoubtedly be at the peak of filming during the two Rangers-Flyers match-ups leading up the Winter Classic on Jan. 2. Featuring what will surely be extensive coverage of the pre-game meetings, game highlights and post-game reactions, these two tilts will put both teams in the national spotlight.
Following the Rangers 2-0 win in the first match-up on Nov. 26, the boys in blue will have a chance to make a great impression with another win against the Flyers on Dec. 23 at the Garden. A sweep of the two games will go a long way to this team regaining respect from the talking-heads and fans from around the country, a respect that was lost in the dark days of high-priced free agent spending and futile results.
When the series airs the games played between these teams will be the feature of two of the episodes. Do not make us relive a loss.