Few ever thought the NHL would open its doors to camera crews and unfettered access during the regular season, but almost everyone who saw HBO’s “24/7” series was glad they did.
While the league will take some time before deciding what to do for an encore, at least one top executive is willing to dream big—chief operating officer John Collins says he’s open to the idea of doing something similar during the post-season.
“That would be the ultimate, being able to take fans inside the Stanley Cup playoffs,” Collins said Friday in an interview. “We’ll look at it. It’s certainly not something we’ll be able to pull together for this year.
“As long as these things go well, there’s no end to it.”
That level of optimism speaks to the success of the HBO experiment. The cable network was given complete access to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals for a month leading up to the Winter Classic and had no restrictions placed on what it could air.
The unprecedented access allowed HBO to deliver a four-part series that not only provided a raw glimpse into the life of a professional hockey player, but also captured the intense rivalry between the Penguins and Capitals (complete with Alex Ovechkin urging his teammates to beat “Shitsburgh” prior to the Winter Classic).
After seeing that, Collins can’t help but think about how compelling it would be for fans to be taken behind the scenes at the most important time of year.
“As intense as hockey is during the regular season, you take it up to the playoffs and it’s just a whole other layer of intensity,” he said. “It would be great, obviously. The Stanley Cup playoffs are unique in all of sports.
“It would be pretty cool.”
The natural assumption is that no organization would ever grant such a high level of access for fear it might disrupt the chemistry at a make-or-break moment.
But it’s worth remembering that many thought tight-lipped Capitals general manager George McPhee would never agree to the “24/7” idea. Collins himself heard that talk when the concept was first being discussed and members of the Capitals organization have since admitted they were worried about what his reaction would be to the proposal.
As it turns out, the concern was misplaced.
“I didn’t have any hesitation agreeing to it,” McPhee told reporters in Washington on Thursday. “I would certainly do it again and I would recommend it to anyone else to do it. The most important thing here was getting exposure for this game. I think HBO loved it and they got turned on to something really neat with these hockey players and this sport.
“I think a lot of people in this country and around other countries if they didn’t already like hockey have a better understanding and appreciation for it.”
Collins is confident others will be open to a similar project down the road.
“I’ve heard that there is kind of a traditional, sort of closed hockey culture that wouldn’t necessarily embrace this,” he said. “But clearly George did. And he embraced it at a point in time when things weren’t going quite as well as they typically have for the Caps.
“I think that provided an incredible opportunity for fans to see what really was a pretty interesting story arc.”
In the end, there’s little evidence to suggest either team was hurt by having HBO crews following their every move. Washington was locked in a losing skid when the cameras arrived, but still put together a 5-4-3 record during its time in the HBO spotlight; the Penguins, meanwhile, went 7-4-1.
Final television ratings for the series are still being calculated. HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg says the cable network is interested in working with the NHL again.
“The co-operation and access we have received from the Capitals and Penguins has been extraordinary, and we are thankful to the teams and the NHL for trusting us to give sports fans a behind-the-scenes look into their captivating game,” Greenburg said in a statement provided to The Canadian Press. “We look forward to future discussions with the NHL.”
The feeling is mutual.
Buoyed by the success, enthusiasm and buzz created by the “24/7” series, the NHL is already on the lookout for other opportunities to open its doors. The focus will be on finding the proper fit to showcase the game and its many personalities.
“I think you’ve got to pick your partners carefully,” said Collins. “This was a pretty important project and that’s why we wanted to do it with HBO. They have experience in this area, even though we felt like we were breaking new ground by following two teams during the regular season. …
“We think of this as a game-changer for us in terms of the openness and the access and being able to get inside the game.”