The NHL's annual outdoor game has turned into must-see TV on New Year's Day, and HBO will breathe new life into it with what they show in Episodes 3 and 4 of "24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic."
HBO's cameras will be rolling when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers walk off the gridiron at Heinz Field around 11:30 p.m. ET the night of Dec. 23 to give way to the crews that will transform the football venue into a winter wonderland complete with an NHL game-ready skating rink.
"We're going to take people where they've never been. We're going to show the sport as it's never been shown. And we're going to electrify people with what we're putting on the air. I kind of guaranteed it, a la Joe Namath, and we've got to come through now, and that's important." -- Ross Greenburg, HBO Sports president on 24/7 Penguins-Capitals
The hype and lead-up to the Winter Classic will be featured in HBO's reality-TV series that debuts at 10 p.m. ET on Dec. 15.
In the final piece of our three-part Q&A with HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg, we learn how he plans to incorporate the Winter Classic into the show and we touch on some of his thoughts about the outdoor event and how his brand should increase the NHL's popularity on a continental basis.
NHL.com: The show is called "Road to the Winter Classic," so how much do you guys plan to incorporate what happens at Heinz Field starting at the end of that Steelers game the night of the 23rd, when Dan Craig and his crew take over and Don Renzulli and his crew for NHL Events take over and transform Heinz Field into basically a hockey palace?
Greenburg: You'll see plenty of that in Episodes 3 and 4. You'll see a lot of Heinz Field being transformed as the Steelers wander off the field and Dan Craig takes his team on the field and creates ice and the atmosphere that is the Winter Classic. You'll see a ton in Episodes 3 and 4, and we'll definitely focus on that. Earlier in the series we will obviously point towards the Winter Classic, but we're really embedded with two teams during the regular season at that point. And so for the first two shows you'll see an intensity about what it's like to play in the NHL on a daily basis. As you know on Dec. 23 the two teams meet in Washington, so that should make for an interesting Episode 2 as we look forward to that game before we even get to the Winter Classic. But you will see plenty of prep on how Heinz Field becomes an ice skating rink.
NHL.com: You mentioned the Dec. 23 game -- it's almost as if the NHL schedule-makers said, 'Here is a gift to HBO.' You have the showcase teams playing one night after Episode 2 and you can have the perfect lead-in to Episode 3, and there it is also a week or eight days before the Winter Classic.
Greenburg: I'd like to say that that's a coincidence, but (NHL Chief Operating Officer) John Collins was really nice to us and I want to thank him for that. Yeah, that game is just set up perfectly for this series and I'm not going to kid you -- it wasn't a total shock or surprise. Although, when he initially told me, I was from ear to ear with a grin, but they definitely set it up nicely for us.
NHL.com: You're a guy that loves to put dramatic shows together. That's what you do, and in the office here you have dozens of Emmys that prove that you do it well. What do you think of what the NHL has done with the Winter Classic?
Greenburg: Well, I think the NHL has embraced this just as much as any league has embraced anything they've ever done. I think there is a lot on the line for HBO and there is a lot on the line for the NHL. They're looking at this series as a transformational four weeks to kind of bring the NHL into the homes of the American and Canadian public. And I think that's important. It's important that we fulfill the promise we made to the NHL, me to John Collins and (Commissioner) Gary Bettman, and I'm getting chills as we talk about it. We're going to take people where they've never been. We're going to show the sport as it's never been shown. And we're going to electrify people with what we're putting on the air. I kind of guaranteed it, a la Joe Namath, and we've got to come through now, and that's important. But I think most importantly we just have to look for the drama and look for the moments in this series with these two teams and these fierce rivals and these superstar athletes and these head coaches and just showcase it. That is what we do well. We've got a hell of a production staff here. We're much like a professional team in just that now we have to execute.
NHL.com: You mentioned the drama and I don't want to jump too far ahead, but you told us in September that Episode 4 is going to be extremely dramatic. We've got the Winter Classic, is that the reason why, just all the images you can show from that?
Greenburg: I think that game outside, 70,000, getting chills as I say this, there is nothing like it. And I think if we can showcase it the way it deserves to be showcased, off of NBC's coverage because they're going to do a great job the day of, but then we're going to have a couple of days to put together some really unique looks at this game. We'll have capped off three weeks of storytelling with this game. It's going to be very, very special because you're going to know these players by the time we get to that Winter Classic and you're going to know the stories that we've developed and you're going to know those coaches and know what's on the line. Then, to be able to capture it all on Jan. 1 and four days later put it on the air, it's going to be really special.
NHL.com: I don't want to look at the negative, but what if Sidney Crosby gets hurt? What if Alex Ovechkin gets hurt? Do you worry about these things?
NHL.com: When it's all said and done and four episodes have been shown, is the NHL going to gain a new fanbase?
Greenburg: Oh, I definitely think there is a new fanbase out there and we're going to get them. There is the average sports fan that watched a little bit of the Stanley Cup but has never really focused on regular-season hockey and I think we're going to grab them. We're going to promote the heck out of this. We're going to get a lot of people in front of the television set on Dec. 15 and then we're going to hook them, and they're going to be the average sports fan, I hope. Maybe even some non-sports fans. I can't tell you the number of times I've been told, "Hey, my mother or my wife even watch this show because it got to them so much." Because, "24/7" is a reality-based show and the younger demo eats this stuff up, they can't get enough of it. I've got two 22-year-olds and I can tell you. So this is their format, they're comfortable with it -- we've just injected hockey into the formula and they become NHL fans without even realizing it.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl