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'Bullies' movie sparked NHL, HBO Sports relationship

by Dan Rosen
If the Broad Street Bullies knew 30-something years ago that they would one day be the hook that brought the NHL into the homes and lives of millions of people who maybe never have seen a hockey game -- well, it's safe to assume they would have asked for some royalties.

Indeed it was the Bullies that this past spring led NHL executives a few blocks down Sixth Avenue to HBO's headquarters. The result is a groundbreaking reality TV endeavor between the League and HBO Sports called "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic."

NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins said Thursday that HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg bit at this rivalry for his "24/7" franchise after he invited Collins, Commissioner Gary Bettman, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and Vice President of Hockey and Business Development Brendan Shanahan to screen HBO's "Broad Street Bullies" documentary.

"At that point we had played the Winter Classic and had done some shooting of the Winter Classic in 3D and with other special cameras, very NFL Films-esque, because the approach was you had seen the game, but we wanted to show some of the dramatic imagery we thought that setting could provide," Collins said at a luncheon at the NHL's headquarters in New York to announce the joint venture with HBO Sports. "We were blown away by 'Broad Street Bullies' and wanted to continue the conversation about what do we do next. So we showed Ross and his team the footage that we had pulled together from the Winter Classic. It wasn't intended to be a recap or highlight of the event, but really just to show the imagery -- and knowing Ross as well as we do, he couldn't possibly look at that and not see the potential and want to get his hands all over it."

"There's no question you're taking the two biggest stars in the sport and the two biggest rivals the sport has at this moment and you're putting them on the ice, so it definitely piqued our interest."
-- Ross Greenburg, HBO Sports president

Greenburg, whose recent production of "Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the New York Jets," has drawn rave reviews, was intrigued.

"You need a beginning, middle and an end to a series like this, and for this the Winter Classic game was the perfect ending to a series if you're going to go and do two teams during the regular season in a professional sport," he said. "That's how the structure of the series developed, but John is right -- it really kicked off when we screened 'Broad Street Bullies' over at HBO for them."

Running parallel to the discussions between the NHL and HBO Sports about doing the series was the selection of the two teams to play in the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. One had nothing to do with the other, Bettman said.

"We ultimately came to rest as that being the matchup that would work, and then this came up afterwards," he said. "We were doing the schedule for the season we're about to start in the spring. We didn't see 'Broad Street Bullies' until April or May. The two things were actually on independent tracks."

But as Greenburg pointed out, the two teams selected to play in the Winter Classic were a pretty good selling point. Washington and Pittsburgh make up arguably the NHL's best current rivalry, and as Bettman pointed out, "there's no shortage of attention" on the rivalry between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.

"I'll say this -- when we learned who the two teams were, it piqued our interest," Greenburg said. "There's no question you're taking the two biggest stars in the sport and the two biggest rivals the sport has at this moment and you're putting them on the ice, so it definitely piqued our interest."

From there, Collins said Greenburg had to find the budget, and he and Bettman had to convince the teams to go along with the project, which meant getting them to sign off on giving HBO unprecedented access in the middle of their regular seasons, something no professional sports team in North America ever has done.

Collins, who spent 15 years at the NFL and worked with Greenburg on launching the "Hard Knocks" series in 2001, said from his experience convincing NFL teams to open their locker rooms, training rooms and meeting rooms in the preseason was hard enough, but never would a team have allowed the cameras to roll for four weeks in the regular season.

However, through meetings with the Capitals and Penguins, everyone from Ted Leonsis and Mario Lemieux to George McPhee, Ray Shero, Bruce Boudreau, Dan Bylsma, Ovechkin and Crosby have been nothing but supportive and eager.

"There were a lot of conversations with the clubs about establishing trust and what that would look like and feel like," Collins said. "It's two teams playing during the regular season and that changes the game a little bit from maybe the way HBO has had to cover team sports in the past, which has been mostly during the preseason. We tried to put everything together as best we could -- obviously the commissioner has some influence on that -- and we were able to offer to Ross a pretty compelling opportunity to cover this sport and do what he wants with it."

Greenburg said he never has received the kind of cooperation that he is getting from the Penguins and Capitals in any of his previous endeavors with the "24/7" and "Hard Knocks" franchises.

"We're not going to give away secret sauces or trade secrets from either team that would competitively impact what they do on the ice," Greenburg said. "The teams themselves will shut our cameras off when they're in a meeting and they don't want to give away any strategic issues. But what we have found is that the key word is trust, and once we gain their trust -- we've already started that process because we've had meetings with both the Penguins and Capitals -- then we'll pretty much get to go wherever we want to go."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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