The cameras are rolling on the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.
HBO crews were granted unprecedented access to the NHL teams starting Sunday, kicking off a month-long project that will see the network produce four episodes built around their appearance in the Winter Classic outdoor game.
There is virtually nowhere the cameras are forbidden from going. Eight-member crews will follow the teams for the next four weeks and shoot roughly 500 hours of footage, which will be whittled down to episodes of 45 to 50 minutes for HBO’s “24/7” series.
“It’s a pretty intense undertaking,” said Ross Greenburg, the president of HBO Sports. “We’ll be going everywhere. Literally our ’24/7′ crew almost works 24/7—there’s no days off and it’s exhausting and it’s a grind. But it’s also invigorating to be part of a project like this and see it come together.”
The first episode will air the evening of Dec. 15 on HBO Canada. Successive episodes follow every week, with each being completed the morning it airs to ensure it includes all of the latest storylines.
Producers Scott Boggins and Bentley Weiner will oversee three edit suites in New York and are responsible for creating a narrative under tight time constraints.
“It’s turned around in one week and very few television shows like this are turned around that quickly,” said Greenburg. “The viewer at home will never know that because it should just look like an entertaining product once it’s delivered—after having put all the music in and (recorded the voiceover).
“It’s going to look seamless, but it’s hell getting there. It just is, it’s tough.”
This marks the first time HBO has focused its Emmy-winning “24/7” series on hockey—and the first time it’s followed a sport during the regular season. In the past, the series has gone behind the scenes with NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson and boxers Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather.
Now it will be paired with the Winter Classic, which will be played before 80,000 fans at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field on Jan. 1.
The cameras are joining the teams at an opportune time as they are currently tied for first overall in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins have won nine straight games thanks in large part to captain Sidney Crosby, who leads the league with 23 goals and 46 points.
HBO doesn’t expect the presence of its crews to create a distraction. In the past, cameramen and producers have found they’ve been able to blend in after an initial period of adjustment.
“After a couple of days, we become a fly on the wall,” said Greenburg. “(Players) tend to just kind of take them for granted. Every once in a while someone will get frisky and play up to a camera, which is fine. …
“The players don’t have a moment where they can relax because they know that if they relax then that bit of video could end up on ’24/7′ and embarrass them. It actually ratchets up the intensity a little bit.”
The crews will each make a stop in Ottawa as Washington plays at Scotiabank Place on Dec. 19 and the Penguins visit the Senators on Dec. 26.
Greenburg, a casual NHL fan, anticipates that many of the show’s toughest critics will be Canadian.
“Look, I know what hockey means to the Canadian people and I know the religion that it is,” he said. “We’re very aware of it. The only thing I’ll promise our Canadian fans is that they will even see a side of hockey they’ve never seen before. I know how they love this sport and I just hope that we’re able to take them places that they couldn’t dream of going with these National Hockey League players and coaches and trainers.
“It’s going to be fun to see their excitement over the show.”
For HBO, the success of the series will be measured by ratings. It will also likely determine whether they do something similar with NHL teams in the future.
The network’s popular “Hard Knocks” series with NFL teams has drawn five million viewers in the past while previous “24/7” series have pulled in more than three million.
If this series manages to draw anywhere near those numbers, the NHL will get something it always craves—big exposure in the United States.
“I think that’s something that (NHL commissioner Gary) Bettman and (COO John) Collins are hoping we do in this country, to reignite the sport here,” said Greenburg. “I think we’re on our way.”