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Friday, January 7, 2011
Will HBO be back? It's a 'no-brainer'

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

HBO was so enamored with its groundbreaking experiment with the NHL and vice versa, it seems certain the relationship will continue with a follow-up next season.

"Don't worry, because it has to work out," HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg told ESPN.com on Friday.

The reaction to "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic" -- the four-part series that provided viewers an unprecedented view of the two clubs leading up to the outdoor game at Heinz Field on Jan. 1 -- was so positive, Greenburg said the network couldn't walk away from the project.

"You can't do that to the American public," Greenburg said, adding that returning for "24/7 Part II" is a "no-brainer."

And this "no-brainer" of a marriage between the Winter Classic and HBO, which provided many and varied applications of the F-word, came to be because the NHL was not constrained by imagination. Four years ago, amid more than a little skepticism and/or indifference, the NHL took its game outside. That first Winter Classic could have been a monumental failure, but it wasn't. That "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if we did this?" idea has become the single most important event on the NHL calendar.

So, where does the marriage go from here?

In the days after the crews and cameras embedded with the two teams for a month went their separate ways, one wondered if the teams would reveal a sense of, "Wow, glad that's over." Or perhaps even a "never again." Last week, some Capitals players suggested that having the cameras around made it more difficult for the team to emerge from a near-crippling eight-game winless streak.

Yet Washington GM George McPhee said he believed there was unanimous support for the project from the players and said the Caps would take part in another such project in a heartbeat. He also told ESPN.com he would recommend to any other NHL GM or team that they take advantage of the opportunity should it present itself.

"It might have been the most fun I've ever had in this business," McPhee said.

Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero said parting with the HBO crew was similar to the feeling of sending a popular player down to the minors. Shero even recalled a story about how Penguins coach Dan Bylsma's wife invited camera crews to spend Christmas at their home after she found out they were spending the holiday in Pittsburgh away from their families.

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin
Viewers of HBO's "24/7" got an inside look at the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin rivalry.

Listening to McPhee and Shero rave about their time with the HBO crews should help put at ease the minds of GMs and teams who could follow in their footsteps, presumably around next year's Winter Classic, wherever that might be.

After all, projects like this aren't about just throwing a bunch of cameras in a room and shouting, "Action!" There has to be trust between the crews and the teams. That trust was obvious in the images shown during the four-part series.

"There's an appreciation, I think, for the professionalism on both sides," Greenburg said. "The relationship-building is important. We have good people. We have people who can execute and who can produce the hell out of a TV show once we're let in."

For the NHL, the payoff from opening its doors in unprecedented fashion is in creating a buzz around the game, its players and its teams. The series has captured imaginations and has people across America talking about the game. Suddenly, with labor talks looming in basketball and football, hockey is cool again.

The payoff for HBO was being able to take viewers inside a professional sports team in the middle of a season for the first time. Greenburg said he thinks the "24/7" series might be a "game-changer" for the network in terms of opening doors to other sports like baseball, which had previously been reluctant to provide the access the NHL ultimately allowed.

The drama of the Caps' struggles and the dynamics of a Penguins' 12-game winning streak and Sidney Crosby's 25-game point run (two streaks that ended during filming) provided a rare glimpse into the world of the professional athlete. Can the NHL hope for such a run similar to HBO's "Hard Knocks" series, which chronicles NFL teams during training camp?

"They're ecstatic at the NHL," Greenburg said. "We brought the game life."

The Winter Classic provides HBO with a natural arc of a storyline; it begins, there are the games leading up to the Winter Classic and it culminates with the outdoor game. A nice, neat package within the sprawling regular season.

NHL COO John Collins, the man behind both the Winter Classic phenomena and "24/7," thinks the series has the potential to be a defining moment for the league. "Hopefully it'll be a game-changer for us, too," he said.

Did we mention thinking outside the box?

"Maybe there's something better [than the Winter Classic theme]," Collins mused during a conversation with ESPN.com this week.

What about taking HBO's cameras inside NHL dressing rooms during the holiest of the holy hockey days, the Stanley Cup playoffs?

"That would be the ultimate if you could track a team through the playoffs and winning a Stanley Cup," Collins said.

A couple of GMs contacted by ESPN.com were quick to pooh-pooh the notion of playoff access. Still, we were a bit shocked that Chicago Blackhawks president John McDonough told Craig Custance of The Sporting News he would be open to having HBO do a similar series with the Blackhawks during the playoffs.

McPhee, a self-described old-school kind of guy, said he would consider allowing similar access to the Caps during the playoffs. "I'd be open to it, and I wouldn't have said that a year or two ago," McPhee said.

Shero joked he would like Chicago to try it first, but ultimately agreed with McPhee, saying there would be an upside to taking the public inside the NHL when its greatest prize is up for grabs.

The playoff idea has some inherent problems. How do you program a series that may last a week or 10 days (which would have been the case if cameras followed the Caps last season when they flamed out in the first round against Montreal)? Or two months?

"But you know what, we always are trying to think outside the box," Greenburg said. "We'd be open to any suggestions."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.