Tonight begins a very special time of year. At 5pm Pacific Daylight Time, the Chicago Blackhawks will face off against the Minnesota Wild and the LA Kings against the St. Louis Blues as sixteen teams begin to narrow down to two, and then to one, in the race for the Stanley Cup. At nearly two months, playoff hockey season lasts nearly as long as Christmas, and like the other holiday is full of rituals and traditions. My way of observing the season is simple: I watch hockey, and I cry.
The playoffs are full of intensity and high drama, but with the exception of last year’s circus sideshow debacle of a Penguins-Flyers series, it’s not the hockey itself that gets me really worked up. I’m a fairly magnanimous fan, eager to see my team clutch the giant silver prize but quick to forgive those who defeat us as long as they play a good game of hockey. What really opens the floodgates is not the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, but the CBC’s beautifully crafted, emotionally manipulative video montages of it all.
The Hockey Night In Canada intro video has become a treasured part of the season over the past few years, earning the sort of cult following that spawns multi-page discussion threads and sixty-five-video YouTube playlists. The premise is simple: a montage of previous-game highlights, energetic crowd shots, mournful footage of defeated teams, and home-team-local-color-B-roll is set to a vaguely-thematic modern pop hit. It’s not revolutionary stuff, but the team at CBC has made a true art of it.
Some of the best opening videos came out of 2011′s brutal Canucks – Bruins final series. The Bruins, looking to end a thirty-nine-year Stanley Cup drought, and the Canucks, playing for their first Cup, brought a fire and intensity to the ice that made for some rough play – Aaron Rome’s brutal hit on Nathan Horton, Alexandre Burrows’ hearty chomp on Patrice Bergeron’s finger – and some great video. The teeming masses of emotional fans gathered in the streets of Vancouver offered both dramatic, sweeping footage from above and reporter-on-the-scene shaky-cam urgency that made a beautiful supplement to the on-ice action.
One of my favorites from the series was for Game 6, set to oh-so-Canadian band The Tragically Hip. It’s a slow burn, simmering quietly for forty-four seconds, then exploding into the of screams and exultations of the Vancouver crowd with a replay of Maxime LaPierre’s third-period Game 5 goal. The remainder of the video is a montage of chirps, checks, fights, and celebrations battering you at a blistering pace and ruthlessly notching up your adrenaline levels. In the midst of all this are hidden little references and plays on words: a shot of Rachel McAdams, an actual movie star, before a decidedly less glamorous image of Canucks center Ryan Kesler as the line “I ain’t no movie star plays”; a broad crowd shot set to the phrase “for miles around”; a replay of Rome’s hit and a fight clip with the line “throes of passion.” These synchronizations are subtle enough not to be cheesy, but smart enough to let you know they’re deliberate.
But CBC’s all-time best work is found in the video shown before Game 1. Backed by the gut-felt emotion of Adele’s “Rolling In the Deep,” this intro to the final round pulls no punches as it brutally shows the forlorn postures and expressions of eliminated teams against the refrain of “we almost had it all.” The list of deposed teams grows slowly, like a playoff beard, but I lose it early on, with the footage of Canadiens goalie Carey Price slumped sadly in his crease. (Sad goalie shots are the worst.) The editors deploy every weapon in their arsenal, from artful slo-mo to drag out critical moments to the Instagram-esque blue-tinge and heavy vignetting that manages to add the feel of nostalgia to events that happened only the previous month or week.
If I could bring myself to be cynical about all this, I would; the true genius in these videos lies in their usefulness as little bits of marketing. The recap in the finals intro draws viewers back into the game by reconnecting them with the narrative of the playoffs, reminding regular viewers of what came before or catching new viewers up on what they’ve missed. It also offers an emotional reconnection to fans of teams no longer competing, giving them a new reason to care about the games and their outcome. But maybe the genius is demonstrated most clearly by the fact that a hardened cynic like me knows she’s being marketed to, and doesn’t care. I’ll turn on CBC tonight at five to watch them read me the opening chapter in this year’s playoffs book, and to see what they have to sell me.
I hope it’s a giant-size box of tissues. I’m going to need one.