Creator Ross Greenburg answers critics of NHL’s new EPIX show

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WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 15: Dan Craig Senior Director of Facilities Operations for the NHL (L) speaks with Washington Capital alumni Peter Bondra upon the arrival of the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Ice Plant during the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic Build Out at Nationals Park on December 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 15: Dan Craig Senior Director of Facilities Operations for the NHL (L) speaks with Washington Capital alumni Peter Bondra upon the arrival of the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Ice Plant during the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic Build Out at Nationals Park on December 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

Like any critic, I had my likes and dislikes of the NHL’s new “Road To The Winter Classic” program on EPIX. OK, maybe more dislikes than likes. Substantially more, actually. 

And like any content creator, producer Ross Greenburg didn’t exactly agree with that criticism. At all. When we hopped on the phone last week, Greenburg insisted that Puck Daddy's review was the only negative one he'd read. Although I'd argue it was "middling" rather than a thumbs-down.

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“I’m not going to sit here and defend anything,” said Greenburg, the former president of HBO Sports that created their revolutionary “24/7” series. “I’m proud of what we were able to create in 2010 with '24/7.' Many of the same people are working on this show. The music was as good as anything we did on ‘24/7.’ I guess you didn’t catch the theme, but the theme carried throughout the show.”

Greenburg’s hung up on the music because I was hung up on the music. One of my favorite aspects of “24/7” were the montages that used everyone from Cold War Kids to the XX to Marvin Gaye. It set a mood and tone that couldn’t be created with original scoring, especially when that scoring was as generic as I felt the music on Episode 1 between the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks was during the debut.

I missed the original songs. So I asked Greenburg about the music, and he gave me two different justifications for the change.

The first was an intentional choice not to use artists on the soundtrack. “Less original artists was an artist choice,” he said. Greenburg said the creators of the EPIX show didn’t want to “do that same old ‘hide behind the lyrical pop song’ that really detracts from the story you’re trying to tell.”

The second was, as I expected, an economic choice. “The new digital distribution mechanism makes it impossible to clear the rights,” he said. On one level that’s avoiding a very tangled legal hassle, and one that’s forced some shows to literally change their music when released on DVD.

On another, it’s a better allocation of budget for the producers and EPIX – do you really need to spend that much more for that Black Keys song? 

I don’t know if I agree with the choice, but then again I’m starting to wonder about my judgment here overall on the EPIX series.

It’s clear based on my middling reviews for some of the episodes on the last season of “24/7” – that vanilla rice cracker of a series featuring the guarded Toronto Maple Leafs and the injury-ravaged Detroit Red Wings – that I’m hung up on the bar set by Greenburg’s crew in Season 1 featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals. That’s the lone season of “24/7” that Greenburg personally oversaw – although he did negotiate with Glen Sather and John Tortorella to convince them to participate in Season 2 – and it remains one of the most perfect run of episodic sports television I’ve ever seen.

So maybe it’s not fair to Greenburg to harp on the music. Or to yearn for Liev Schreiber’s incredible narration. Or to wax nostalgic for a show that doesn’t really exist any longer.

Look, we’re basically in Season 4 of this show, but it’s really Season 5, maybe even 7. We’ve seen a myriad of NHL programs mimic the “24/7” format, whether they’re on NHL Network or streaming on team sites. Part of that affection I have for the early seasons of “24/7” is the same affection I have for Season 1 of “The Real World” or “Survivor” – it aired before their entertaining aspect became familiar tropes, and before anyone on subsequent seasons had a chance to watch them.

I’m not saying the players on EPIX are playing to the camera, but they’re better aware of them and aware of what they portray. And so the rawness of the first two seasons is a little muted.

All of this is to say that I think I got my ya-yas out in the Episode 1 review, and won’t seek to judge subsequent episodes against “24/7.” It’s a different vibe, a different show. It’s the same thing that pisses me off about reviews of “SNL” – yeah, Cecily Strong is funny but not, you know, Kristin Wiig funny. Well, Kristin Wiig ain’t walking through that door.

OK, I guess she did last weekend ...

Greenburg doesn’t see it as the same show either, for various reason. One of them is the way EPIX is supporting the show’s narrative with additional footage available online; in Episode 1 for example, the full anthem in Chicago was featured on its website after a snippet made the show.

“They did a lot of stories that didn’t make their way into the show,” said Greenburg. “They’ve been aggressive and it’s working. We give them a bucket of material, and they pick.”

It’s a lot of great information and material for hardcore fans to consume. Which led me to another question for Greenburg, admittedly again tied to “24/7":

The HBO audience, in theory, was one made up of hockey fans and HBO Sports fans that were sampling the NHL. Maybe they were compelled to watch after seeing an ad during “Hard Knocks” or stumbled on it one night while flipping through the channels.

The EPIX viewer, one imagines, is likely a hockey fan that’s sought out the program. A die-hard. One that maybe doesn’t need a casual tone in the coverage, and can get his or her hockey nerd on if the show catered to that. True?

“No, I didn’t look at it that way,” said Greenburg. “It’s been proven out: The ease with which EPIX put it out over the Internet enabled us to have the same mentality that we had as HBO. That we’re bringing to the masses. Sports fan and non-sports fans.”

Of course, the show’s only as good as its subjects, as the final season of “24/7” no doubt reminded us all.

Greenburg loves the Chicago Blackhawks on the show. “The machine that’s been created. All-star studded group of men. New England Patriots, old New York Yankees attitude. It feels dynasty-like,” he said.

Every dynasty has its pillars, but it also has its supporting cast. “What I find interesting are guys like Shaw and Sharp and guys that don’t get the recognition they deserve,” he said.

The Washington Capitals, of course, were featured on the first season of “24/7.” Some of the stars are still around – Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green – but the culture has changed dramatically since then.

“That takes shape thanks to the coach,” said Greenburg.

It’s no secret, then, why Barry Trotz and goalie coach Mitch Korn were spotlighted in the first episode. Both are compelling characters, and both are symbolic of the change the Capitals are attempting to produce.

As the clunky narration to begin the first episode noted – and Greenburg is quick to mention that Aaron Cohen, who wrote that “there’s this thing about roads” soliloquy, was the writer n “24/7” as well – it’s a journey for these teams. But unlike the other three series, when the Winter Classic arrives, it won’t be a meeting between traditional rivals or, really, teams with any semblance of rivalry.

Is that a concern?

“Not really. They’re two star-studded teams. We are in the nation’s capital. The show that’s taken shape over the years, you don’t have to concern yourself with the game being against heated rivals. Even Philly and New York, being heated rivals, you didn’t sense it,” said Greenburg.

“It’s a nice little cushion, but not a necessity.”

Episode 2 of “The Road To The NHL Winter Classic” airs Tuesday night at 10 p.m. on EPIX, and streams pretty much everywhere else. It should be an improvement on the first episode, what with the Capitals’ 20-round shootout and the Blackhawks’ holiday party on the docket.

Here’s a glimpse, focusing on Andrew Shaw:

Hey, look at that: a pop song with lyrics. Huh ...

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