Winter Classic: HBO's aims for access to Penguins, Capitals


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When cameras began rolling last week, little Max Rupp was a natural.

The 1-year-old son of Penguins forward Mike Rupp was filmed by an HBO crew for its upcoming sports reality program, "24/7: Penguins/Capitals: The Road to the Winter Classic."

At the team's holiday party at the Consol Energy Center, it was Cute Kid Alert: "I had Max on a sled and was pulling him around," said his father.

But during a visit with Santa -- HBO or no HBO -- Max wanted no part.

"[HBO cameras] got him screaming on Santa's lap," Mr. Rupp said. "That's like the typical Christmas picture, isn't it?"

Still, "I think Max Rupp is going to be a superstar by the end if it," said defenseman Ben Lovejoy.

Pittsburgh fans can watch the series first episode at 10 p.m. Wednesday.

"I can tell you, the reaction from the NHL, from the teams, the coaches and the players, has been as good or better than any '24/7' we have ever produced," said Rick Bernstein, vice president of HBO sports and series executive producer with president Ross Greenburg.

"They all understand what the show is about, they all understand how we have to be there all the time."

"All the time" means exactly that. The cameras are rolling at games, during practices, on airplanes, in hotel rooms, at restaurants, and they might even follow some players or coaches home.

HBO has a crew of eight living here through New Year's Day, when the Penguins meet arch-rival Washington outdoors at Heinz Field. Four episodes will air -- three featuring the run-up to the Winter Classic, which includes a Dec. 23 game in D.C. -- and a Jan. 5 finale episode shot at the Classic itself.

The final say on what appears on the episodes, however, is up for negotiation.

"This is [a policy] we have had in place since we started doing 'Hard Knocks,' " said Mr. Bernstein, citing the cable giant's behind-the-scenes series profiling NFL teams during training camp.

Behind the scenes

Teams can preview the edited content and if they believe it puts them in a compromising position, from a competitive standpoint, HBO will work with that.

"But I can tell you that over the years there have been very few changes requested of us," Mr. Bernstein said.

"We maintain editorial control, but I think they understand that the only way the series will be a success is if we both work together to provide total access."

"24/7" has produced seven up-close-and-personal looks at prizefighters since its inception in 2007, winning a slew of Emmy Awards. Earlier this year, it followed NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson en route to the Daytona 500.

This is the first time an HBO sports reality series has jumped into the lives of players, coaches and staff during a team's regular season.

"One thing I have learned is that, unlike football, you can have a team be on a slide and it's not as big a deal. You can lose a few and I think the guys can still be in a good mood," said Bentley Weiner, a coordinating producer who grew up in Squirrel Hill.

Superstitious behavior abounds in athletics, so it probably didn't sit well that on the first day of the crew's arrival, Nov. 15, to shoot B-roll and explore camera angles, the Penguins lost in overtime.

After that, however, they have been on an 12-game winning streak. A change in routine? Cool.

To prepare for filming, the advance HBO team spent a week and three home games with the Penguins in mid-November.

From now until New Year's, one field producer, one assistant, two cameramen armed with Panasonic VariCams, two audio specialists and two camera assistants make up the very mobile group responsible for shooting the Penguins, 24/7.

Exhaustive research has provided them background information, YouTube clips, NHL-provided clips, as well as a list of good restaurants open at odd hours.

A similar scenario is being played out in Washington, where the coordinating producer is Scott Boggins.

Ms. Weiner said it usually takes the athletes a few days to get used to the camera crews: "I think it depends on the athletes. We hope they don't notice within a couple of days. After a week, they know they're there, but they're not as cautious."

When HBO and the Penguins announced in September that "24/7" would cover the Winter Classic (the game airs on NBC), players appeared amused.

"We're allowed to swear, right?" said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

Noting that the New York Jets head coach was talking up a blue streak on the most recent edition of "Hard Knocks," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma laughed and said, "I don't think I'll let fly like Rex Ryan, but it'll be interesting to feel the cameras on you in different situations."

In the first filmed practice Tuesday, some of the players wore microphones, and backup goaltender Brent Johnson wore a tiny helmet cam next to his left ear.

He claimed no distraction: "I actually played just how I always play. They [viewers] get to see the shots coming right in.

"No one shot at my head, so that was good."

Tell me a story

It's one thing to shoot hours of footage -- possibly 500 by the time they're done -- and quite another to shape it into intriguing story lines.

"One of the most challenging aspects of '24/7' is, we go into each week with what we think the format of the show will be, but it is often changed," Mr. Bernstein said.

Some of the story threads are obvious: the well-mannered Penguins superstar, Sidney Crosby vs. the bad-boy Caps superstar, Alex Ovechkin.

Penguins standout Jordan Staal is fighting back from not one but two injuries, so his story probably is a given.

Still, the obvious doesn't always turn out to be the most interesting, which is why the crew films interviews boxing managers and guys who make smoothies for the athletes.

There will be 25 consecutive days in the field, planning, arranging camera placement, doing interviews, filming. Back at the editing studios in lower Manhattan, producers are in constant contact with the Pittsburgh and D.C. crews. Each day's footage is put on an early morning flight, arriving around 10:30, where it is logged and digitalized.

In New York, a team of about 20 transform the raw footage into compelling documentary. Previous "24/7" cycles have produced 30-minute episodes, but the Winter Classic shows will expand to 45 to 55 minutes.

The executive producers, coordinating producers and senior producer David Harmon have begun their marathon editing sessions. Some work can be done ahead of time -- choosing music, assembling B-roll film -- but the rest is an organized scramble to meet deadline.

"It's a five-week grind, day and night, without a day off," Mr. Bernstein said.

The script is locked down by Tuesday night, when actor Liev Schreiber arrives to record the voice-over. Mr. Schreiber, a Tony Award-winning stage actor also known from his many films, has become the go-to guy for documentary narration.

On occasion, holes in the script are left on purpose. For Pacquiao-Margarito "24/7" in November, the weigh-in was conducted at 6 the night before the new show aired. The fresh footage was quickly inserted, but, as Ms. Weiner said, "it's a crazy process.

"Once we start editing during the run of the show, it's 14 hours a day, probably, at least," she added. "We're usually at work until 1:30 a.m., but it's not unusual to be there at 3 a.m."

The payoff is a program that is must-see television, for hockey fans and beyond. After all, it's not reality TV, it's HBO.


Shelly Anderson contributed. Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478. First Published December 12, 2010 5:00 AM


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