Uncertain future for ‘HBO 24/7: Road to NHL Winter Classic’

Dave Harmon had worked on uncensored sports documentary programming for years. He knew what "HBO 24/7: The Road To The Winter Classic" was going to sound like. So before Season 1 aired, he cautioned unsuspecting hockey fans about the content.

"I told everyone that Boudreau was going to curse in a way that would make Rex Ryan blush," recalled Harmon, vice president of sports production and the senior producer for HBO Sports.

"While we don't usually talk about things that aren't on the air yet, it did prepare people that the show was going to be different."

It was different; hell, it was revolutionary. From the language to the candor to the cameras in places where fans and media can't go, "HBO 24/7" has presented two seasons of addictive, appointment television. The season finale of Season 2, featuring the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers battling in the 2012 NHL Winter Classic, airs at 10 p.m. EST on Thursday night.

"One of the reasons it's successful is that it doesn't do what everyone else does. For hockey, we didn't even know we were going to be an hour. When we first started Penguins/Caps, we were thinking 35-40 minutes, maybe. We did what we felt was right for the show in the end," said Harmon.

"We thought going into this season that our challenges might be access," he said. "But both teams had a chance to watch the Penguins and Capitals. We thought they'd pick and choose what they'd do. Our biggest worry was them; but our worries are over. They gave us the access we wanted."

This season provided its own challenges, happy accidents and unforeseen drama. What next season will provide is a mystery — including whether there will be a third season.

To the weekly viewer, the main contrast between this season and last is that the Penguins and Capitals had a clearer narrative arc that carried through their series; the Rangers and Flyers episodes seem more "character driven" than having one plotline, beyond the preparation for the Winter Classic.

"Last year, with one team on a losing streak and one team on a winning streak, things become self-fulfilling. Alex Ovechkin is not going to go out and partying and having us follow him if they're on a losing streak," said Harmon.

This season, Harmon said the producers didn't have any preconceived notions about which stories and players would break out.

"When the Flyers win some and lose some, and some of that seems like it can be based on injuries, that becomes a story. But then you put a microphone in front of Mr. Universe …"

Ah, yes, Mr. Bryzgalov. The Flyers goaltender's "universe" speech in Episode 1, his comparing his dog to a "hot blonde" in Episode 2 and his "5 faces" speech in Episode 3 made him the most compelling, and quotable, player on the show.

"It was like magic. We didn't know we were going to be in a pregame meal and he was going to talk about his Siberian Husky," said Harmon.

Which is to say that Bryzgalov is unpredictable; which is a good thing for a show that's developed its share of familiar beats from season to season: The Christmas parties, the charity skates with kids, the Big Important Game in Episode 3 followed by the Winter Classic in Episode 4.

"We attempt, within every episode, to say we don't want to do the same thing," said Harmon. "However, if the series is always going to lead to the Winter Classic — I would love to do the Playoffs, but we're talking about what we have and not what we wish we had — then this is what the players did.

"They went to Christmas parties. They had New Years. Short of showing 60 minutes of the Winter Classic itself, it's still a reality series. We have to show what they did and not create something that wasn't there."

Which brings us to where this series is going once Season 2 is in the books. Could "24/7" shift its focus from the Winter Classic to another segment of the NHL season? "No idea," said Harmon. "There's a lot of things that have to happen. We're focused on this year."

Will there even be an "HBO 24/7" series with the NHL next season?

It's a sensitive subject for those involved in the production. The viewership numbers were down this season, at least on the night when the show premiered, yet the buzz is still palpable among sports fans.

But it's not about the ratings with HBO; in this case, it's about the leadership.

Former HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg was the guiding light for the network's sports reality programming. He's now set up at his own shop, working with the NHL in "24/7"-like series like "NHL 36" on NBC Sports Network.

Former Showtime executive Ken Hershman is the new head of HBO Sports, and nothing has been determined for a third season of "24/7". The Associated Press speculated that "he could decide to keep the show, and possibly expand it from its four-week run, or move in a different direction."

NHL COO John Collins was also non-committal for next season, although he clearly hopes to renew for a third season.

"We've been doing it on a year to year basis. They have a new management team coming in now," he told Nick Cotsonika of Yahoo! Sports. "But I think it's been great for us, I think, and I think it's been great for them, too. So hopefully we'll be able to figure it out because we'd like to go forward."

If Hershman and the new management team at HBO bring back "24/7" and keep it focused on the Winter Classic, it will likely feature the Detroit Red Wings next season against an undetermined opponent.

But here's an interesting revelation: While fans have often weighed the "24/7" aspect heavily into the Winter Classic invitation process, Harmon says HBO doesn't have final cut on this decision.

"I think I'm safe to say that we have no input," he said. "The NHL is in charge of the Winter Classic, which is a bigger thing than '24/7'. They tell us and then we make our decisions based on the teams playing in the Classic."

After 2013's game, the Winter Classic could be headed to Washington, DC … which would mean a return engagement for the Washington Capitals in Season 4 of "24/7". Would Harmon be down for that?

"We have done 'Hard Knocks' with the Dallas Cowboys twice. Jerry Jones was the same, but a lot of other things change in sports. If we had the Washington Capitals back, we wouldn't be complaining. If it's different, it's different. If they're the same, then it's 'how did they change?'"

As Season 2 wraps up, Harmon said his favorite moment came courtesy of Peter Laviolette's fiery pregame speech at the start of Episode 3.

"I feel like I knew what John Tortorella was like. But when we started Episode 3 with Laviolette in the locker room … my field producers said 'we gotta use this!' When I got into the edit room, even after it was built up, it was still unbelievable," he said.

"It was a guy who had completely forgotten the cameras were there."

It was raw, it was real, it was unexpected and it was insightful. It was everything Dave Harmon and his battalion of producers, cameramen and editors strive to bring to viewers each week; it was everything that keeps the viewers coming back.

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