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NHL's Collins driving force for HBO's '24/7' venture

by Dan Rosen
John Collins is too diligent and too meticulous to let just any cameras barge into the NHL's regular season and turn on the lights for an all-access look.

HBO Sports isn't just any cameras or any network. HBO Sports is the pinnacle of sports reality TV.

Collins, Chief Operating Officer of the NHL, knows this not from just being an avid viewer, but from experience. As part of his gig during his 15-year tenure at the National Football League, Collins worked hand-in-hand with NFL Films President Steve Sabol and HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg to make sure the phenomenon that is "Hard Knocks" got launched properly in 2001.

He's at it again, and Collins thinks the upcoming "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic," a joint venture between the League and HBO Sports, is can't-miss programming for the NHL and its fans.

"If we're going to let somebody in to our regular season with two of our model franchises and next to the Stanley Cup one of our biggest events, we want to be partnering with someone like HBO."
-- John Collins, Chief Operating Officer of the NHL

The "24/7" program will offer fans four shows of unprecedented access into the world of the NHL's best present day rivalry starting in December and running through the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. HBO episodes are scheduled for Dec. 15, 22, 29 and Jan. 5 (all at 10 p.m. ET, with encores at 11 p.m. ET each of those nights).

HBO Sports' "24/7" franchise has won 12 Emmy Awards since its debut in 2007, making it the most decorated sports program over the last three years.

"To partner with HBO, somebody who is bigger than sports and one of the premier brands in all of entertainment -- they've been through this before and won 12 Emmy Awards just for this series -- I think brings it to the level where it should be," Collins told Thursday morning. "If we're going to let somebody in to our regular season with two of our model franchises and next to the Stanley Cup one of our biggest events, we want to be partnering with someone like HBO."

Collins believes "24/7" can do for the NHL precisely what "Hard Knocks" has done for the NFL.

"What it did for the NFL and what it did most recently for the Jets is it gets you off of the typical sports fan audience and drives you to a much bigger audience," Collins said. "People who may not have been watching your games or may not have been familiar with you suddenly see you within the context of the stories and the personalities and the struggles and what it's really all about. It shows you what makes Rex Ryan Rex Ryan, and hopefully what makes Sidney Crosby Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin Alex Ovechkin. To me, that's the best kind of marketing you can have for a sport or for a player. You only see what TV allows you to see during game coverage. This will give you a whole new perspective."

The Winter Classic is the hook in the series, but it's only one of the stories, Collins said.

HBO Sports' cameras will start rolling in early December in both Pittsburgh and Washington and will follow the teams on a daily basis to develop Episodes 1 and 2.

Episode 3 will document the first meeting of the season between the Penguins and Capitals, which is Dec. 23 in D.C. And, of course, the final episode will include uncensored, behind-the-scenes footage from the Winter Classic.

This will be the first time HBO will document two teams simultaneously and the first time its cameras will roll during the regular season. Collins said that in itself is a feat considering "it was hard enough to get NFL teams to think about doing it in the preseason."

"The Winter Classic is one of the stories that will be interesting for people to follow, but the real story will be the Pens and the Caps, what they do and what they go through," Collins said. "The Winter Classic may be the payoff in terms of the last week, and when the two teams get to the point where that's the next game for them it'll become a big focus for them, but up until then it's an unprecedented look at two big marquee teams during a regular season. It hasn't been done in any of the U.S.-based sports and in our sport hasn't been done since 'Boys on the Bus.' "

Collins hinted that this "24/7" venture won't be the last time the NHL offers fans this kind of reality experience.

"We know fans want access," he said. "They want to get in as deep as you'll let them go and that's what this series is going to be all about, and that's what we've been trying to do with our renewed effort in content, first with and now most recently with what we're trying to do with the NHL Network. For hockey fans it's a great beginning because we have a lot of aggressive plans to do more of this kind of programming."

Thinking strictly as a viewer, Collins wants HBO Sports to let fans "see the real deal."

"I know HBO will do it," he added. "The guts and the toughness and the humor that it takes to play the game I have the utmost respect for. The guys that I have met are just great guys that the world should know more about. I hope that we'll drive big ratings for HBO and I think without a doubt those ratings will move over to the Winter Classic, but at the end of the day I'm more excited about people getting a chance to see what the NHL and its players are all about.

"We can't miss on that one."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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