"On the eighth day, they attached a microphone to legendary Kansas City Chiefs head coach Hank Stram as he was coaching on the sidelines during the Super Bowl and there was much rejoicing.” - The Ghost of Sports Documentaries Past
Some 45 years ago, at Super Bowl IX in New Orleans, legendary NFL Films founder, the late Ed Sabol, coerced Stram to wear a microphone as he coached the KC Chiefs to a 23-7 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Various reports point to a payment of $1,000 dollars to seal the deal which changed sports documentary coverage forever while vaulting NFL Films to its $50 million a year platform as “must see” television and its rightful place as the grandaddy of all sports film-makers. Since that game, NFL Films begot “HARD KNOCKS,” which set newfound high marks in terms of behind-the-scenes access to the inner workings of training camp in the National Football League.
Boston's Zdeno Chara poke checks Montreal's Max Pacioreety in NHL action
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
With the high standard set by the NFL, the other major sports in North America quickly followed suit as MLB Productions, NBA Entertainment and the NHL created their own documentary film and, eventually, television networks to promote their respective sports, create and distribute additional behind-the-scenes programming while cashing in the almighty dollar. The most recent foray is now being televised and streamed by EPIX as they present “The Road to the NHL Winter Classic,” a weekly series of one hour episodes currently showing on cable TV and streaming online at EPIX.com as the NHL promotes its gem of an event, pitting the Montreal Canadiens vs. Boston Bruins on January 1, 2016.
Back in 2008, the NHL’s Winter Classic snuck-up on sports fans, many channel surfing between college football bowl games back during the inaugural event, a 2-1 overtime shoot-out victory by the Pittsburgh Penguins over the Buffalo Sabres before 71,217 fans at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium, the usual home of the NFL’s Bills. As the snowflakes fell ever so slowly in our television screens, increasingly projected in high definition, the simplicity of an outdoor ice hockey game captured viewers in a way the NHL only imagined. The event was a gem and, even in subsequent years in locales such as Wrigley Field in Chicago, Fenway Park in Boston or Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, spectators - to a man - describe it as “the greatest sports event in history.”
With such a wonderful canvas to work upon, 53-time sports Emmy award-winning producer, Ross Greenberg, in partnership with NHL Original Productions undertook an NFL Films approach in producing “Road to the Winter Classic.”
As you might expect, the documentary series brings fans a “Day in the Life” setting to watch the likes of Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban “wake up, get out of bed and drag a comb across his head,” although in the case of Episode 1, the flamboyant all-star worked an electric toothbrush in front of Greenberg’s camera crew. However, it’s the deeper and frequent segments such as a look into Subban’s love of fashion and clothing design that takes hockey fans to the place they want to be to see the real lives of their favorite players, all depicted as the “regular guys” they are in their everyday lives.
A simple walk through Boston’s North End with Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara follows that simple formula but captures the 6-9 superstar Chara visiting his neighborhood barber and sandwich shop as he wandered through the maze of tiny cobblestone roads in Boston’s oldest neighborhood, the place he calls home when he’s not in his native Czech Republic in the offseason. Similarly, a short segment with newborn Zack Bergeron, son of Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron, somewhat stole the show in Episode One, which first aired on December 16.
Of course, it’s the highlights and action that are most attractive to the hardcore ice hockey fans and “Road to the Winter Classic” delivers in a big way. The all-out access to pregame strategy sessions and locker room pep talks conducted by Montreal coach Michel Therrien and Bruins coach Claude Julien provide valuable insight to the game behind the game.
In all, it’s the unprecedented access to the game which brings viewers inside each team's day-to-day, game-to-game operation and that access is the key to delivering content directly to fans in the 2015-16 season of sports.