By Scott Burnside
The NHL will announce later this month that they have partnered with emerging premium cable provider Epix to produce and air the popular reality hockey series that precedes the annual Winter Classic outdoor game, multiple sources told ESPN.com.
Not only will Epix — the cable entity that is a collaboration of heavyweight Hollywood film studios Lionsgate Entertainment, MGM and Paramount Pictures — produce four segments leading up to the Jan. 1 game at Nationals Park between the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks, they will produce another four-segment series that will lead into the Stadium Series game Feb. 21 at Levi’s Field between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings, a source told ESPN.com.
The shows will be available on cable and multiple platforms in the United States. It’s expected that Rogers Communications, which owns the NHL’s national broadcast partner in Canada Sportsnet, will share the production costs and air the series in Canada. The two series will be available in the United States commercial-free and, as in the past with HBO’s popular and critically acclaimed “24/7 Road To The Winter Classic” series, will provide fans with an uncensored look at players, coaches and managers during the lead-up to the outdoor events.
The details of the new partnership will be revealed at a Sept. 23 press briefing in Washington.
The NHL parted company with HBO after three seasons of “24/7 Road To The Winter Classic,” a bold enterprise that helped expose the game to the long-sought-after casual hockey fan.
But with HBO’s parent company, Time Warner, looking to reduce costs across the board, NHL officials became concerned about whether the same quality would be produced for a product that garnered 15 Emmy nominations and three Emmy awards.
Enter Epix, which was exploring producing more original content as opposed to simply airing Hollywood movies.
Epix was launched in October 2009. President Mark Greenberg has a long history working for HBO, and producer Ross Greenburg is the former HBO senior executive who helped launch the original “24/7” in 2011 that featured the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Officials with Epix reached out to NHL officials to discuss the possibility of working with the league as a way to expand their sports documentary library. Their most recent project, an examination of how the color barrier was broken in the NFL in the 1940s entitled “The Forgotten Four,” is produced by Greenburg and is gaining significant buzz in advance of its release.
Greenburg will produce the new NHL series for Epix.
Production qualities, always a defining element of the previous three HBO productions, are again expected to be high with per-episode production budgets expected to be about $400,000 — on the high end for television documentaries, a source told ESPN.com.
The theory is that the bigger the budget, the more cameras and production and editing quality go into the project, thus producing a more refined product.
While last year’s series chronicling the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs as they prepared for the record-breaking Jan. 1 game at Michigan Stadium was recognized with seven Emmy nominations and one Emmy award, there were complaints in some quarters that access hadn’t been as unfettered as in the past. There were times when the coaches — Mike Babcock in Detroit and Randy Carlyle in Toronto — were seen restricting camera access.
But with the Capitals and Blackhawks both overseen by progressive and media-savvy executives like Caps owner Ted Leonsis and Chicago president John McDonagh, the expectation from both Epix and the league is that access — key to the series’ success — will not be an issue.
As for distribution, Epix is available to 50 million U.S. subscribers and, as part of the agreement with the NHL, all hockey fans in the United States will have access to the finished product, sources told ESPN.com.
Epix provides content through a variety of platforms, including gaming systems and the Internet.
The details on how hockey fans will be able to consume the two series will also be revealed at the Sept. 23 press briefing.
Okay, I’m tentatively excited. It’s not like I was dazed and mesmerized by HBO’s efforts. (Though, The Toaster will forever live in my heart as a deep and abiding metaphor for all things Leafs.)