Pittsburgh Penguins-Washington Capitals rivalry to be showcased on HBO show

This will be the NHL’s two biggest superstars as only a precious few have ever seen them.

HBO has been granted total access to Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins for a month leading up to the Winter Classic. The cable channel will feature the teams in its latest “24/7” all-access reality series—producing four one-hour episodes as they prepare to meet on Jan. 1 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field.

There is virtually nowhere the cameras are forbidden from going.

“(We’ll go) in team meeting rooms, into the locker-room, on their planes on chartered flights, at home and everywhere these players and coaches or assistant coaches go,” HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg said Thursday on a conference call. “At the heart, that is what this ’24/7′ series is all about: To bring you the viewer access that you’ve never been given before so that you can understand what it takes to be a professional athlete and compete at this high of level.”

The series will debut on Dec. 15 and air once each week. HBO plans to distribute “24/7” in Canada—something it didn’t do with its recent “Hard Knocks” program featuring the NFL’s New York Jets—but is still working on specific arrangements.

“Believe me, it will be in Canada,” said Greenburg.

If “Hard Knocks” is any indication, viewers will get a look at the more colourful side of the Penguins and Capitals. Several profane speeches from Jets coach Rex Ryan were shown in “Hard Knocks” as he prepared his team for the season.

There’s no reason to expect “24/7” to be any different.

“If this is going to be authentic, guys aren’t going to be scripted,” said NHL commmissioner Gary Bettman. “As you see in any sporting event in the stands among fans, as you see around the playing surfaces, there is occasionally language that’s a little more mature than you might want to put on Saturday morning programming for children.”

Crosby isn’t concerned about suffering any impact to his image if the camera catches him in a heated moment.

“I’m just like any other person,” he told reporters in Pittsburgh. “I have my cranky days, too.”

Pittsburgh and Washington have developed one of the NHL’s fiercest rivalries in recent years. Led by star players who entered the league at the same time, the teams played a memorable seven-game playoff series in 2009 and have engaged in numerous regular-season battles as well.

The “24/7” series will include a Dec. 23 matchup between the Penguins and Capitals at Washington’s Verizon Center before culminating with the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.

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HBO will have total editorial control over the series and only plans to omit material that might put one of the teams at a competitive disadvantage. It also promises to delve much deeper than the sport’s top two players.

“This show will not be the Alex Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby show,” said Greenburg. “When we do ’24/7′ or any of our other reality-based shows, as you’ve noticed, we don’t focus on two players on an entire franchise or team. We’ll be all over the coaches, assistant coaches, all their teammates—we’ll look for the most compelling characters.

“They’re going to be as big a part of this series as is warranted.”

There will be no shortage of choices. The teams each feature players with great personalities and Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau is among the most colourful in the game.

Veteran hockey agent Allan Walsh was among those hailing Thursday’s announcement. He believes hockey is in the midst of a “renaissance” thanks in part to a decision by the NHL to change its marketing strategy and start focusing on individual players rather than teams.

Walsh notes that the league’s U.S. television deals with NBC and Versus both expire in June 2011, and predicts that networks will line up to bid on the next contract because of the way the NHL has positioned itself.

“There’s a much broader picture than just, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to have a ‘Hard Knocks’ for hockey? Let’s do it,”‘ said Walsh, who represents five players between the Penguins and Capitals. “This is actually, in my opinion, a very well thought out strategy that’s probably been two to three years in its implementation.”

It will mark 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, “24/7” has gone behind the scenes with boxers Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather, and NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson.

Now it will be paired with the Winter Classic, which is already a big television hit and one of the NHL’s major events. The HBO series should only add an extra level of intrigue.

“There will be unprecedented interest in the game,” said Walsh. “The previous Winter Classics have been wildly successful from a revenue and marketing standpoint, to the point where the game has become a brand in and of itself. …

“At the end of the day, (’24/7′) is going to act as a commercial—a four-hour or five-hour commercial for your product.”