After making its mark with boxing and then riding along with Jimmie Johnson as he prepped for the 2010 Daytona 500, HBO Sports' acclaimed 24/7 franchise tonight drops onto National Hockey League ice.
Facing off on Dec. 15 at 10 p.m., Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic, the premium network will take viewers inside one of the NHL's top rivalries and look at the sport's biggest stars, as Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals prepare for their outdoor meeting on New Year's Day in the Steel City's Heinz Stadium, which will be broadcast on NBC.
HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg, in a recent interview in his Manhattan offices, called the four-episode Road to the Winter Classic a "hybrid" of HBO's 24/7 franchise, which has won a dozen Sports Emmy Awards, and its Hard Knocks series, which tracks National Football League training camps.
"There are differences. We've been embedded with both teams leading up to the first telecast. The teams play 12 games during our series, including one against each other on Dec. 23 in Washington," Greenburg said. "Unlike Hard Knocks, these are regular-season games, so there are going to be some real highs and lows and different emotions coming out of those contests."
He said the series' roots trace back a few years to when John Collins became NHL COO and began talking about the concept. Collins' "full-rink press" heated up with the favorable response to HBO Sports's Broad Street Bullies documentary about the 1974-75 Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers, which aired last spring. When the league scheduled the Penguins-Capitals for the Winter Classic, the power play went into motion, so to speak.
Greenburg noted that HBO conducted "primary shoots," spending four days with both the Penguins and Capitals, and then was embedded with the squads on Dec. 5 as part of a 10-day ramp-up to the first installment.
"We have eight people in each city, three edit rooms running non-stop, and we'll have tapes going back and forth to New York hourly as we get close," he explained. "What we've seen looks real good. And the NHL showed our preview during its Board of Governors meeting and they applauded. The league's really excited about this."
What got the executives cheering and will engage viewers is the program's fly-on-the-wall perspectives. Although there will be plenty of on-ice action, The Road to the Winter Classic is not a mirror of what NHL fans get to see during TV games window or at the arena. Greenburg said HBO will put microphones on players, coaches, general managers and owners, and is even looking to get the referees into the audio mix.
"We're showing practices, the skate-arounds, the getting up at dawn, the rigors of travel, the unpacking of the bags," he said. "All of what it takes for these guys to play at this incredibly high level."
Although the cameras will certainly trail the faces of the league, Crosby and Ovechkin, Greenburg said that with team sports, the squads take their leadership cues from the coaches, who become focal point for telecasts.
"[Capitals coach Bruce] Boudreau is Rex-like," said Greenburg, alluding to New York Jets head man Rex Ryan, who became the star of the network's Hard Knocks look at the team this past summer. "[Penguins coach Dan] Bylsma is more controlled. But off the ice, behind the- scenes, at team meetings, you'll see a more flamboyant side."
Road to the NHL Winter Classic will also premiere episodes on Wednesday Dec. 22 and 29 and Jan. 5 in the same time slot. The finale debuts four days after the Winter Classic, with cameras tracking all the same-day drama
All told, the four episodes, including immediate repeats at 11 p.m., are scheduled to have 68 plays on HBO and HBO2 and will also be available via HBO On Demand.