Life beyond HBO, Winter Classic: Caps, Pens look for return to normalcy

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Now that the cameras have stopped rolling, the real test begins for the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins.

The teams wrapped up a month unlike any other with Saturday’s Winter Classic outdoor game at Heinz Field. From having their every move documented by HBO’s all-access “24/7” show to participating in the NHL’s biggest regular-season showcase, there have been plenty of distractions for organizations with Stanley Cup aspirations.

They’ll start readjusting to a more recognizable routine just as the regular season shifts to its toughest stretch—January and February are often considered the dog days of a long 82-game schedule.

“We’ve joked with the HBO guys that we’ll have to invite them back,” said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. “We are going to miss them. I thought the show and it leading to the buildup to this (Winter Classic) game was a unique look, a great experience. … Our guys are shaking hands and saying goodbye to the HBO crew because we feel like we’re sending a player down (to the minor leagues).

“But we’ll have to do our best to get back to normalcy, which is the 42 games left in our hockey season. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The final episode of HBO’s fascinating series airs on Wednesday night (HBO Canada, 10 p.m. ET). It will show a different Capitals team than the one it started documenting in early December, culminating with an emotional 3-1 victory over the rival Penguins in front 68,111 fans at the home of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.

Even though rain made a mess of the temporary ice surface in the Winter Classic, the event took another big step forward in its fourth year of existence. The experience was unanimously praised by players, coaches and team personnel, and the league may have lucked into a ratings bonanza after weather forced the game to be moved to prime time—early numbers from the U.S. were very strong.

“The scene was spectacular,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “Somebody with one of the clubs was telling me that as they approached the stadium and they saw the lights on, it was just a spectacular sight. They got chills down their spine.

“It was one of the more amazing things they’ve been associated with in all their time in hockey.”

In the eyes of NHL chief operating officer John Collins, the league overcame a couple major hurdles during the past month. Not only did it prove teams could open their doors and allow fans more access to the sport with the HBO series, it also showed that it could handle an outdoor game in less-than-ideal conditions.

Collins is the driving force behind both initiatives and was feeling pretty good about them while speaking in the bowels of Heinz Field a couple hours after the Winter Classic. Asked about the possibility of good TV ratings in prime time, he replied: “That would be the cherry on top of everything.”

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A big challenge facing the NHL is finding ways to continue creating compelling storylines and situations for the Winter Classic. There’s no guarantee the game will be held on New Year’s Day again next year because the league still has to negotiate new American TV contracts that will have a major bearing on the schedule. On top of that, Jan. 1 falls on a Sunday in 2012 and the NHL might be reluctant to put the event against a full schedule of NFL games—provided that league comes to a new labour agreement and plays next season.

It will be interesting to see if the NHL adds more outdoor games to its schedule in the future. A second one will be played this season at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium on Feb. 20 and the list of interested teams in doing something similar is long.

Based on the success of HBO’s “24/7” series, it’s reasonable to expect that other NHL teams will soon open their doors for similar projects.

There were a few growing pains with this project, particularly for Washington which endured an eight-game winless run in December, but both organizations seemed happy with the final product. The Caps went 5-4-3 with HBO crews in the dressing room while the Penguins were 7-4-1.

“It was kind of fun at times and kind of annoying at other times,” said Washington defenceman John Carlson. “I think it’s a great thing for hockey and I think it’s a great thing for our team. They were great guys and we actually did have a lot of fun with them.

“But we’re happy to get back down to basics and get back in our regular routines and not have to fluff anything up for the camera.”

Some of the Capitals believe the team’s struggles were made worse because of HBO’s presence, with forward Eric Fehr suggesting the cameras kept players from getting on one another.

Brooks Laich is one of the Washington’s more outgoing players, but even he wasn’t a big fan of the experience.

“I’m a hockey player, not an actor—I’m not getting paid by HBO,” said Laich.

“I think our guys have had a good time with it and I hope it’s brought some good exposure to our players and our sport,” he added. “Once it’s done, it will be kind of nice to not have camera crews in every meeting and right in your face when you are getting dressed and (having) conversations.”