These are the final moments of privacy for the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers.
Starting Monday, the next stars of HBO’s “24/7” all-access series will open their doors to cameras for four weeks unlike any other. As the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins learned a year ago, virtually nothing is off limits once the HBO crews embed themselves.
It’s a model the network has mastered across a variety of sports. But the NHL remains the only league willing to grant such an unprecedented level of access in the midst of the season.
“One of the things we learned while shooting it last year is ‘Oh my God the intensity level is so different,'” Dave Harmon, the co-ordinating producer of the series, said this week in an interview.
“We know now how serious it is shooting with teams in the regular season as opposed to boxing, when they’re in training camp, or NASCAR, when they’re just getting ready for the Daytona 500,” he added. “Right from the start it’s ‘Stay out of their way, this is their profession, this is their business. Just be flies on the wall observing.'”
The format for the Flyers/Rangers series will closely mirror that of the original: Four episodes built around the Jan. 2 Winter Classic outdoor game between the teams at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Ballpark.
The first one-hour episode airs Dec. 14 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO Canada and will be followed by one per week afterwards.
Virtually the same 50 people who worked on last year’s series are back again, including producers Scott Boggins and Bentley Weiner, and narrator Liev Schreiber.
But viewers can expect some changes. For one, HBO is hoping to gain even more access than it had a year ago, when it showed footage from inside the dressing rooms, training rooms, players’ houses, team planes and even the NHL’s video room on a disputed goal review.
“I can’t really tell you what (else we’ll do) yet because it’s not approved, but we’re hoping for other microphones and cameras in places outside the rink that’ll give you a feel for everything that’s being decided and going on,” said Harmon.
Camera crews have already spent time with the Rangers and Flyers gathering footage and some long-form interviews, but there will likely still be an adjustment period for the players and coaches once they move in permanently for a month.
The experience for the Penguins and Capitals was overwhelmingly positive last season, even though Washington found itself in a long losing slide as the series began. When all was said and done, Pittsburgh went 7-4-1 with HBO’s cameras rolling and Washington was 5-4-3.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was arguably the star of last year’s series but admitted last week that the ever-present cameras came with some challenges.
“The tough part is after you’ve lost a game and they’re there,” Bylsma told reporters in Pittsburgh. “We saw that last year. I felt it when we lost in the Winter Classic game—you feel the scrutiny with the cameras there.
“You feel like you have to say something. You feel like you don’t want to say something because the camera is there and you’re in a vulnerable moment.”
In many ways, it’s those vulnerable moments that help make the show such a success.
This is true reality programming with producers unable to manipulate or control storylines. Facing a quick turnaround time, they must simply follow whatever developments crop up around the teams.
They’ll be joining the Flyers at a time when they’ve just lost captain Chris Pronger for approximately four weeks after knee surgery. Harmon identified the veteran defenceman as one of the players HBO had hoped to focus on. The Rangers, meanwhile, have been hot and look like serious challengers in the Atlantic Division.
Even without the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin dynamic this time around, there should be plenty of intrigue.
“Anticipation for the series is greater because people know what to expect now,” said John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer. “The bar is high in terms of the access to the teams, the storylines that develop during the four weeks of shooting, and how the series showcases the players and coaches in a way that most fans don’t get to see.
“It’s real and viewers are drawn to the series whether you are a fan of the two teams or not.”
There is no shortage of personalities for HBO to spotlight—whether it’s the abrasiveness of Rangers coach John Tortorella, the aloofness of Flyers star Jaromir Jagr or the playfulness of Philadelphia’s Max Talbot, among others.
Harmon hinted that they might try and go more indepth with some players this time. Last year, HBO had hoped to give viewers a better sense of Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, but scrapped the idea when the Caps were stuck in a losing streak for fear it might portray the players in an unfair way.
Whatever they end up putting together, they’ll find a rapt audience. Most of the hockey world will be watching closely.
“I want them to be themselves,” said Bylsma. “I can’t wait to see the Rangers and Flyers, a closer look on the inside.”
A preview of “24/7 Flyers/Rangers: Road To The NHL Winter Classic” can be viewed at: http://www.hbocanada.com/247flyersrangers/sneakpreview.php