NEWARK — The Washington Capitals, or at least those granted a private entrance into practice Friday afternoon, walked down a ramp from the locker room inside AmeriHealth Pavilion and entered the rink alone. Then came the first camera, followed by a sound technician carrying a microphone, pursued by an assistant wearing a backpack, running to catch up, because Alex Ovechkin was right behind.
The crew from the cable network Epix, totaling roughly 15, circled around the glass boards. They pivoted toward Coach Barry Trotz when he arrived and soon, the first day of all-access filming — the latest sign of the approaching Winter Classic — had kicked into full gear.
“It’s no different than having postgame interviews . . . at all times,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “You may have a camera in your face when you’re tying your skates once in a while, but it’s a good thing. It gives fans a good opportunity to see what it’s like around the rink when we’re not on the ice.”
The crew had already visited the team’s practice facility in Arlington to conduct preliminary interviews and film promotional footage, and several players experienced a similar treatment before the 2011 Winter Classic against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now, over the next three-plus weeks leading to the New Year’s Day matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks at Nationals Park, their professional lives will be documented, and some personal aspects if they so choose, then aired in four hour-long episodes.
“Being a sports fan, with other sports, that’s appealing for fans to watch,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “I love watching [HBO’s] ‘Hard Knocks’ with the NFL and all that kind of stuff. I think that’s the stuff fans want to see.”
Last winter, the final year of HBO’s partnership with the NHL, there were things the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs did not want the cameras to see, so both coaches banned the “24/7” crews from their locker rooms during games. Trotz has spoken before about the “sacredness” of an NHL dressing room, but at some point the Capitals will reconcile their desire for privacy with their duty to the show.
“There are still conversations we want kept private,” forward Brooks Laich said. “There are emotions you want kept private. There are injuries, or nicks and bruises you want kept private. I think finding the balance of what you do expose and what you want to keep protected is something we’re going to be a lot more aware of this time.”
Having experience helps. During the “24/7” episodes leading up to Washington’s victory at Heinz Field, a camera tagged along with Laich as he drove to the rink. Forward Eric Fehr and his wife wrapped and delivered presents through the Salvation Army’s Adopt-A-Family program. Center Nicklas Backstrom invited teammates for Christmas Eve dinner. Orpik, a more private individual then playing for the Penguins, made an appearance while disputing a call to an official during a game, but declined to involve his personal life.
“Some guys like showing their family side of things, which is important,” he said. “But that’s not for me.”
Even without Orpik, the Capitals are replete with potential stories. Speaking Tuesday night at Verizon Center, producer Ross Greenburg, who also helmed the HBO series before joining Epix, offered a list of “really interesting humanitarian stories” that included the following: Trotz and his son, Nolan, who has Down syndrome; Ovechkin’s mentorship of young Russians Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov; the relationship between goaltending coach Mitch Korn and starting netminder Braden Holtby; and owner Ted Leonsis, whom Greenburg has known personally since around 1999.
“Sometime people’s personalities change when the cameras are around,” Laich said. “They don’t do it for cameras. They like being themselves and they don’t want everybody to see all the crazy things that supposedly grown-up men do. It does humanize, but sometimes you’re supposed to be a grown-up man and you’re doing silly things, it makes you look like an enlarged kid. I think some of that is tapered a little bit when the cameras are around.”
But the Epix crew will also follow the Capitals throughout a road-heavy month, starting Saturday in New Jersey and continuing through a pivotal slate of Eastern Conference matchups. Here, Greenburg said, will come a dash of the unexpected.
“Things are going to happen on the spot, and we have to react,” he said. “We have to be there. Someone gets injured, we want to follow that player through the rehab, see what it’s like to get back to the ice, hit that training room on a daily basis. All those things pop up, and we have to react to it. We have seven days to put together an hour show. It’s crazy. We’re nuts. But we get it done.”