Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
“That would be the ultimate, being able to take fans inside the Stanley Cup playoffs,” (John) Collins said Friday in an interview. “We’ll look at it. It’s certainly not something we’ll be able to pull together for this year.”
This quote, taken from an excellent piece by Chris Johnston of The Canadian Press, is an eye-catching revelation from the Chief Operating Officer of the NHL. It has been widely reported that 24/7 was a resounding success for both the league and for HBO, and the success goes beyond just hardcore hockey fans. Casual sports fans and even those who have never watched hockey were riveted by the show’s in-depth look at the goings on with both the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins before the Winter Classic. It was the most access that any media entity had ever been granted with an NHL club, and it gave people a whole new understanding of the game.
This notion was supported by another quote from the Johnston piece, also by Collins. “I’ve heard that there is kind of a traditional, sort of closed hockey culture that wouldn’t necessarily embrace this,” he said.
Back to the initial statement by Collins, it is interesting to see that the league would actually consider letting TV cameras into team locker rooms during the cauldron of playoff-time hockey. Teams traditionally go into a sort of “lockdown mode” when April rolls around, and the idea of camera crews filming practices and team meetings seems kind of absurd. Most teams who normally hold practices to the public during the regular season generally close them in the playoffs, and this preference for secrecy seems like a recipe for bad TV.
Another potential issue for the 24/7 Stanley Cup Playoffs edition would be one of match-ups. It stands to reason that a league as obsessed with the TV rating value of match-ups (see the decision to have a Caps-Pens Winter Classic) would be concerned about the potential of an unfavorable matchup screwing up the ratings for the show. For instance, it is entirely possible that the playoffs could result in something along the lines of a Vancouver-Tampa Bay final, and the mix of a Canadian team with a southern team could be disastrous from a marketing perspective.
One of the big reasons, like it or not, that 24/7 was successful was because of not only the stage that the game was being played on but also because of the star power involved. Yes, some of the audience was drawn in because of the close look behind closed doors, but there were plenty of viewers who tuned in because of the presence of Ovechkin and Crosby.
Another driving factor behind 24/7’s appeal was the look it gave into the players’ personal lives as well. Seeing Eric Fehr and his wife giving presents to an underprivileged family and Matt Cooke and his son wearing matching suits were arguably two of the most memorable moments of the series, and it showed how incredibly likeable these guys are.
In the high-pressure situation of playoff time, family lives probably take a backseat as the men are fully consumed with the goal of winning the Stanley Cup. Even those who still make time for family at that time of year probably don’t want camera crews following them around while they do it, and that discomfort would definitely come out on film. It would deprive the show of one of its biggest selling points, and that wouldn’t be a good thing for HBO.
On the flip side of that argument, the lack of personal video could actually work to HBO’s advantage, especially early in the postseason. With eight different series going on in the first round, it would be a challenge to get all of the teams equal time on the show, so if the network and league decided that they wanted to cover the playoffs all the way through, this editing decision would become easier simply because they’d have more time to fit everything in.
As for the odds that there could be an unfriendly matchup for TV, it stands to reason that there would be just as good of odds of getting an epic playoff series as there would be a bad one. A Capitals-Penguins battle in the playoffs would be a smash hit, as would other rivalries like Red Wings-Blackhawks and Canadiens-Bruins. Last year’s Cup Finals between Philadelphia and Chicago would have been an easy sell for HBO, with the Flyers coming from sneaking into the playoffs to the verge of a title and the Hawks looking for their first Cup in 49 years.
Even if the match-up didn’t look good on paper, it could easily become fascinating on air. The series between the Oilers and Hurricanes back in 2006 would have been one that certainly could have generated hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth behind closed doors, but it turned into one of the most memorable Cup Finals of this generation. It would have turned from television you could miss to must-watch in a heartbeat, and things would’ve turned out rosy. The point is that even if a match-up looks bad on paper, it could still turn into an epic one.
Perhaps most importantly of all, HBO would not have to drum up any drama to make the series insanely addictive. They benefitted greatly from the Caps’ losing streak at the beginning of the show and the Penguins’ white hot run as well, and the huge difference in momentum between those two squads provided a dichotomy that was fascinating to see.
In the playoffs, drama is simply a part of the territory. For every series that lacks discernible drama (which didn’t happen a lot last year), there are plenty that have it in spades. The Red Wings and Coyotes played an entertaining seven game series last year, and Jaroslav Halak’s single-handed rescue of the Canadiens from elimination by the Capitals were both historic moments, and if cameras had been around to capture those series, the resulting film would have been spectacular.
So should the NHL explore the possibility of having 24/7 cover the playoffs or even the Cup Finals? By all means yes. Exposing more viewers to the NHL is always something that the league strives to do, and with GM’s like Ray Shero and George McPhee, as well as Blackhawks President John McDonough open to the idea, it seems like a 24/7 Cup Edition isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
That being said, executives might salivate at the idea of their teams having cameras around during the playoffs, but the decision should ultimately be left up to players and coaches who are in the arena. The incredible amount of pressure that these guys are under at that time of year would certainly make for compelling television, but something like this should not be forced on them against their will. Doing so could adversely affect them at a time when they need to be focusing on hockey, and the game would not be better off if that were the case. To paraphrase Robert Downey Jr.’s character from the film “Tropic Thunder”, the NHL needs to “pump their brakes “ and be careful not to rush into anything.
James started out for The Hockey Writers covering the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009, and has also covered the Chicago Blackhawks, served as NHL Correspondent, and is now a Managing Editor and the site’s NHL Central Blogger. He also writes for The Golf Writers.