Ted Leonsis is the perfect man to ask.
The Washington Capitals owner oversees the only NHL team to appear in both versions of Road to the Winter Classic: HBO’s original 24/7, which documented the lead-up to the league’s marquee midseason event for three seasons, beginning with the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011; and the new miniseries by Viacom’s Epix, which will also produce another four-episode program leading into the San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings Stadium Series game Feb. 21 at Levi’s Field.
Ted Leonsis is the worst man to ask.
The Washington investor lobbied commissioner Gary Bettman aggressively to host the 2015 Winter Classic in a city in which he holds majority ownership of three pro sports teams, so it’s natural that he sing the praises of a series that promotes a team, an event and a district he wants to succeed.
Watch the final episode of Road to the Winter Classic on Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET
Still, it’s striking that, riding a high after his Capitals’ last-minute win over the Chicago Blackhawks, Leonsis offered such a blunt analysis of 24/7.
“To me, [Epix’s show] was more reality TV than HBO. HBO was more theatre, with almost like a script – organ music, piano music, light, dark,” Leonsis said at Nationals Park. “The people at Epix did magnificent work on not having a point of view or narrative. They let the players and the coaches and the people in the organization speak for themselves.
The players really liked and respected these folks. They kinda became friends with them; they didn’t find the cameras intrusive.”
In a notable scene during last year’s 24/7, Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock instructed HBO cameramen to vacate out of the dressing room. And members from both the Wings and Maple Leafs spoke about feeling a sense of relief when the crews stopped following them around after the 2014 Winter Classic wrapped up.
Which is not to say Epix’s lens has full reign. We know Chicago’s Corey Crawford asked that his sprained ankle stay off camera, and viewers were denied a look into the Blackhawks’ quiet room after Jonathan Toews took a shot to the head.
But players and coaches from both clubs heaped praise on the documentary experience, which culminates Tuesday with the airing of Episode 4 on Sportsnet (Canada) and Epix (U.S.) at 7pm ET. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville says the filming wasn’t much of a distraction at all.
And the new network gained plenty of respect for its treatment of the sudden death of Blackhawks staffer Clint Reif mere hours before Episode 2 needed to wrap production.
“It’s been really good. It’s been fun. My pretty face has been on it a lot, with [Andrew] Shaw. Me and him in the locker room are probably the guys who like to have the most fun and keep it relaxed,” said Blackahwks forward Bryan Bickell. “It keeps fans in touch with what we do behind the scenes and what we’re really like off the ice.
“Episode 1 where I had a bad black eye and Shawzy came in with a haircut — I still give him a hard time about that. There’s different scenes that we bring up over the past couple weeks that’s fun.”
Chicago captain Toews hasn’t seen a single episode yet but plans to binge-watch the entire four hours once he gets an afternoon off.
“What’s it gonna look like? What stories are they going to come up with?” Toews said he wondered while the cameras tagged along. “Half the stuff that’s said in [the dressing room] in front of the cameras, you can’t really air that on TV. It’s sad almost that we don’t have anything better than that to show. But hopefully it’s entertaining to a certain degree.
“For the most part I think it shows we’re just a bunch of regular guys. We work hard. We do whatever it takes to go out there and win games, and we enjoying being around each other.”
Capitals coach Barry Trotz — arguably the show’s most likable character and only second to Quenneville in cusses caught on air — said he entered the experience trying to just be himself.
“I do apologize to all kids that my F-bombs during the whole segments, and I think Joel beat me by quite a few, so I think I’m safe,” Trotz said. “Good or bad, we were going to go through this and it’s actually helped us learn a lot about ourselves. Dealing with pressure, dealing with situations, and building up to this game and learning to deal with all the distractions.
“You ended up with two of the hottest teams coming into this Winter Classic, which was great.”
As Leonsis spoke about the experience, the lights from multiple television cameras, all within swatting distance, forced him to squint.
“I don’t know how reality TV stars do it. I know we live in a transparent society, but having cameras like this all the time would drive me out of my mind,” Leonsis said. “But the guys, the coaches, the players, the staff got used to it and were very appreciative of the work.
“The work was superior, and Epix deserves to do this again for the league.”