For the last two years, the most compelling television programs about the National Hockey League were being shown on a pay cable station that doesn't air a single live hockey game.
HBO's 2010 documentary "Broad Street Bullies" was a thorough and intuitive look at the history of the Philadelphia Flyers. Later that year, HBO presented "Penguins Capitals 24/7: The Road To The Winter Classic," regarded as the series that changed how the NHL presents and sells its product through narrative television programs. (A second edition of "24/7" begins in December.)
The architect for both projects was Ross Greenburg, the former president of HBO Sports who left that post in July. He's won 51 Sports Emmy Awards, and also helped create "Hard Knocks" and "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel."
This week, the League announced the creation of NHL Original Productions, a join effort with Ross Greenburg Productions. The significance of this partnership can't be stressed enough: The best parts of "HBO 24/7" are going to be sliced up and packaged as their own programs on NBC Sports Network, The NHL Network and other platforms.
Meanwhile, the greatest stories in hockey history — from the 1972 Summit Series to the careers of players like Bobby Orr — are going to be tackled by one of sports television's most successful guiding hands for documentaries.
"I believe that even if something's been done — and this might be a brash thing to say — maybe it hasn't been done in a definitive fashion," said Greenburg in a conversation this week.
"Executed on those stories so people are mesmerized by a subject. I like sucking people into a story, watching it mouths agape, and maybe with a tear in their eye."
NHL Original Programming will create long- and short-form hockey programs for NBC Sports, the NHL Network and then potentially for third-party platforms. (Giving us hope for 'Zdeno Chara's Euro House Dance Party" on MTV2.)
"We're not just going to tailor anything for just the American audience. That's never been my approach. A great story should cross boundaries," said Greenburg.
From the NHL:
Among the projects on the drawing board for NHL Original Productions in 2011-12 are "Day in the Life" player documentaries revealing the regimens and personalities of NHL players appearing in NHL on NBC games. Plans also are being developed for documentaries and features to coincide with the lead up to the NHL's Centennial Celebration in 2017. Greenburg also will work with independent producers and filmmakers to produce hockey films and other documentaries and reality-based series focused on the sport.
Like Greenburg's HBO work, much of the model for this is NFL Films and president Steve Sabol. "They convinced [the NFL] that if we bring cameras places and microphones places, we can bring fans places they've never been before," said Greenburg.
NHL COO John Collins, the man behind the League's recent television successes, helped develop HBO's "Hard Knocks" with Greenburg while with NFL Films, and later as Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales for the NFL.
"I worked with those guys my whole time at the NFL, and understood their role in creating the mythology of those teams and players," he said.
The "Day in the Life" project, which will be turned around within a week of the games on NBC Sports Network, is derivative of Greenburg's previous work with HBO. It'll focus on one player, but feature the same behind-the-scenes elements and unprecedented access.
"It's very much mini-'24/7s'. This is designed to really let you know who these guys are," said Collins.
There are also plans for projects more in line with "Broad Street Bullies", and one of them even includes Bobby Clarke: The 1972 Summit Series documentary. (Full disclosure: Our Dmitry Chesnokov is consulting on that project.)
"I don't know how many people in the United States know the story. It was at the height of the Cold War," Greenburg said. "Having done 'Do You Believe in Miracles?' [on HBO] it struck me that no one had ever looked back eight years earlier at a real blood bath and a real war on the ice."
The nostalgia will continue with profile projects that look at specific teams and players throughout NHL history, no matter how many times those stories have been previously examined.
"This sport has a really rich history, and there are a lot of icons out there for the sport. None of them have really had their definitely stories told. We would be reckless if we didn't give hockey fans the chance to go back and relive these people's stories," said Greenburg.
He also said the original productions will cover hot issues in the NHL with a journalistic approach. "It could wander into the journalistic world. The NHL is one of the most transparent leagues I've been around. Brendan Shanahan's doing his videos. Gary Bettman has a weekly radio show," he said.
"Nothing is out of bounds for the NHL. People have a very open mind. Within the reality programming that we do, I think you'll see a sprinkling of journalistic issues."
Some of this might strike U.S. sports fans as familiar, seeing as how ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary series has been a game-changer with its fresh takes on well-trodden stories.
"Would I love to do a 30-for-30? Yeah," said Collins. "We have a huge appetite for this stuff. We've got a guy in Ross that's done it at a very high level for his career."
A '30-for-30'-like effort depends on financial backing, of course. Greenburg said he had plenty of ideas at HBO but didn't have the budget to execute them. While these projects with NBC are not going to be done on the cheap, a '30-for-30' take on the NHL will depend on finances.
But Greenburg indicated it's not about trying to out-ESPN ESPN.
"It's a big world out there for documentary filmmaking. It's an endless well of storytelling. There are documentaries happening every day; witness Penn State," he said. "It's not about competing with another network. It's about taking great stories that you come up with and executed on those stories."
It's that emotional connection to teams and players that HBO so perfectly established in its work on the NHL, but that other original projects by the League failed to establish. (Watch NHL Networks' original programming for a bit, and you'll understand.)
"It's just another form of advertising and promotion. But it's so much more powerful because of the emotion that it creates," said Collins.
A target of that documentarian advertising? Young viewers. Greenburg said he saw his own children fascinated by reality television, and knew it was a way to bring casual fans to sports programming.
"If that entire generation is mesmerized by that form of television, I want to dazzle that generation," he said.
One of his ultimate hope for the NHL? That all the trappings that make a Ross Greenburg production work — the access, the intense emotion, the spectacular footage — can one day be found on any hockey game broadcast live on television.
"The most important thing to do is to do that in nightly game coverage," he said. "I've said this for years. It's time to analyze, across the board, [how to] bring people down to the ice. Hear the sounds and see the sights of hockey."
The NHL's banking that Greenburg can continue to present them like no other.