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Behind the Scenes with EPIX and an Interview with Producer Ross Greenburg

The folks at EPIX invited us behind the curtains for a look at how episode 2 of Road to the NHL Winter Classic came together, and let me sit down with the man at the helm to chat about the Capitals and the Road ahead.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

It was a brisk and overcast morning in downtown Manhattan last Thursday, just about the type of weather the NHL and fans might hope to have for New Year's Day in Washington, when I entered an office building housing a labyrinth of video editing rooms used by the EPIX crew, led by Executive Producer Ross Greenburg, to assemble, polish and buff the next installment of EPIX Presents Road to the NHL Winter Classic. It was cozy and dark inside every room, often only a string of holiday lights and glowing rectangles, with video work-in-progress, illuminating the place.

Here's an exclusive clip from tomorrow's episode 2:

First, a little bit about the "making of . . .," and then our interview with Greenburg follows.

I sat down with Ross in his "field" office, along with his Coordinating Producer, Johnson McKelvy, to observe the two minds at work discussing the day-to-day events of each team, the footage captured, and to be captured, for each potential segment, and how best to assemble the puzzle.

The process moves at a breathtaking pace on multiple fronts simultaneously.  You've got Ross and Johnson brainstorming ways to draw the best out in certain star players, waiting for "quiet" leaders like Nicklas Backstrom and Jonathan Toews to "unveil themselves," and taking care to create "a balance of characters" amongst the personnel on each team, not to overload the viewer with a single player.  (Of course, following a particular guy might yield a holiday gift basket of material too good to leave out.)  Cameras follow the teams for 12 hours a day and so new material is pouring in as fast as existing film can be digested.

Where to connect the on-ice narrative to candid moments in the room?   Is a certain coach as "scary" off the ice as he seems behind the bench?  How to showcase the jolting contrast between the "glitz and glamour" of a Blackhawks holiday party with shots of a young, journeyman goaltender like Scott Darling, who's clinging to the NHL dream one day at a time?  What moments will make the final cut?  Just three short days before episode 2 is "locked" for final preparation, dozens of issues need compelling resolution.

On the Capitals side of it, Ross and Johnson were particularly excited about covering more of "new stars" Michael Latta and Tom Wilson, quite popular with the show's female audience, and the "twins," Jason Chimera and Joel Ward.  Backstrom was repeatedly called the "glue" that binds the team - the key being how to showcase that binding effect.

While some of the narrative and character focus is conceived in advance, the producers ultimately just have to review the hours and hours, and hours, of footage and "see where the story takes us."  And sometimes, not unlike game-day coverage, a narrative gets re-routed by unexpected events.

Of course, timing also plays a part in fitting together the moving parts.  A show with fewer, but longer, segments has a different pace and personality than one with a dozen shorter segments temporally fitting more tightly together.

The intro segment was just about done by Thursday mid-afternoon.  Next, the entire program will be prepared in near-final form for a "screening" session by the NHL offices on Monday morning, a day prior to air time.  Typically led by John Dellapina, the NHL's Group Vice President, Communications, the primary purpose of the league screening these days is ensuring continuity and correct terminology. The line producer of the show explained that, having done this type of show several times, the production team will generally self-censor injury specifics and other "competitively sensitive information" (but not all of it).

By the early afternoon the full episode is "locked" and narrator Bill Camp begins his work.  It's then a non-stop push to get the episode finalized and prepared for release to the US and Canadian networks by 9:00 am on Tuesday.  I got tired just writing that.

Producer Ross Greenburg, winner of 52 Sports Emmy Awards (Who knew that many have even been awarded?), took a few minutes out of the day's storm to chat with us about the show and allow us to explore his unique perspective on the Capitals, now covering the team a second time in this all-access format.  You can listen to the whole interview here, or just read on.

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Japers' Rink:  You produced the first program of this type leading up to the 2011 Winter Classic with the Capitals in it.  What sort of things have you learned since then in trying to make this a compelling show, particularly for a casual hockey fan?

Greenburg:  I think going in depth, drawing out storylines that aren't necessarily hockey oriented.  Like the [Capitals Coach] 'Barry Trotz and his son, Nolan, story.'  What it's like to have a special needs child.  Nolan has Down Syndrome and kind of bringing that to the American public and showcasing the fact that their family life is no different than yours or mine.  They love that child.  And I think that kind of a story can make a real statement.

But also looking for the fun moments as you go along.  I'll never forget [Andrew] Shaw and [Bryan] Bickell going at it in the trainers' room. With Bickell's face half smudged up with a terrible black eye and cuts all over the place.  And Shaw walks in and Bickell's giving him a hard time about a lousy hair cut, as if his face looks pristine in the mirror.  That's what you shoot for in these shows -- to bring a smile to people's face or to see the intensity that goes on on the ice.  It's really a fascinating game to cover.

Japers' Rink:  The Caps have been through this before as an organization, and many of the players from the 2010-11 season are still with the team, including most of the core guys -- Backstrom , [Alex] Ovechkin, Brooks Laich -- how do you present an angle on these guys to the greater hockey world who have seen this program before?

Greenburg:  Luckily we're in a stage where, I did that show in late 2010 and obviously 2011 was the game on New Year's Day, but here we have in 2014 and Ovi's grown up into this incredible leader and a mature NHL hockey player.  In those years, he had just gotten into the league and was much younger.  And I think just showcasing that maturation as he heads into a new season with a new coach.

And we've already discussed in our first episode the relationship with Trotz.  Now we're just going to get deeper and deeper into seeing how he kind of is molded into this leader of the Washington Capitals.  And his coach has taken him under his wing.  And Ovechkin is also a mentor to a couple of young Russians on the team.

So you're seeing the evolution of the players. They've really come together, Trotz's new culture there.

So you're seeing the evolution of the players.  Backstrom is this quiet leader and just is the glue.  They all talk about him being the glue for the whole team off the ice and on the ice.

So, they've really come together - Trotz's new culture there.  We want to showcase that, and show people behind the scenes into how he's doing it.

Japers' Rink:  Just to talk about nuts n' bolts for a little bit.  There was a quote from Eric Fehr from the Caps saying that the camera crew was doing a pretty good job of being sneaky.  What are some of the "content-collection" things that you've done this time around to try to capture more, for a group of guys that have already experienced this and sort of know where to pick their spots?

Greenburg:  The mikes are on the coaches, on the bench, the mikes are in the locker room.  The mikes are everywhere and picking up a lot of fun stuff.  The guys at times forget they're there at all.  That's really the way you become good at this game.

And we have some real professionals -- producers, shooters in the field -- who are just focused on drawing out as many storylines as we can.  So that, you know, Chimera and Ward may be yucking it up in the locker room as they were in the first episode.  You never know what you're going to get.  The camera's always on, and you're just kind of following the story.

Japers' Rink:  Is there a process of establishing trust with the players too, to let hem know that 'We're not trying to portray you in a negative light?'  How do you go about that?

Greenburg:  That starts two months ago.  I had meetings with all of the different teams.  I talked to management, coaches, everyone.  And we sit down and I just explain that trust is the key to this entire working relationship.  They have to trust that we're not trying to make them look foolish, and they have to trust also that we're there to observe and shoot what they do on a daily basis in the NHL, and that we're going to not get in the way of them doing their jobs.

And we ask them to trust us but also to give us the professional courtesy of doing our job.  Making sure that we can go off ice with players and see who they are in real life.  See who Trotz.  See who [Capitals owner] Ted Leonsis is.  So that's really important to us, that its established early and that we carry it through five weeks with them, that mutual trust.

And at the end of the day, if they see something that they don't like, I'm going to talk to them.  I'm not going to give them final cut, but I'll definitely look at what they're having to say and take it out if I think it's too sensitive or something's off, it's over the line, or whatever.  Because language is also an issue here.

Japers' Rink:  So this is a Capitals-focused outlet and I wanted to pick your brain a little bit, since you've been immersed in the team through this process five years ago and now today.  You mentioned Ovechkin undergoing this maturation process.  What are some of the things you've seen [from the team] -- particularly for outsiders they see a team who has constantly cycled through coaches and has struggled to really find their way and maybe find an identity -- and what have you seen from Ovechkin when you say maturation?

Greenburg:  Well it's more than just Ovechkin.  First of all, Barry has definitely adopted a new culture, and you can see it evolving, you can see it taking shape.  And you can see a team that's coming together in the locker room.  Much more than four years ago.  The 'family' is starting to kind of materialize.

And I think that shootout that just happened [@ Florida] which we'll portray in the second episode, seems to be a real . . . Interestingly they lose the shootout but -- we were just talking in a format session -- I have a feeling that might have taken the team and melded it together.  Believe it or not, even in the loss.

Something's going on and I think the city should be pretty excited.  Because Capitals hockey is really coming back.  I can feel it.  Just being around it.

So I'm starting to see something happen there.  And obviously they're winning a lot, which is great for them and not bad for our show.  No losing streaks this time around.  That makes a difference because it's kind of showing off a bit.

I think something's happening there.  I'm not going to say that they're going to go out and win the Stanley Cup but something's going on and I think Washington should be, the city should be pretty excited.  Because Capitals hockey is really coming back.  I can feel it.  Just being around it.

And I'm not just gettin' out the megaphone and trying to stir up a lot of fun down there.  I'm being honest.  We're as close as you can get.  The locker room's different.

Japers' Rink:  Do you go into a show like this having themes that you want to cover off the bat?  Also you see the footage and will draw from it what presents itself.  How much of the show is kind of prepared in advance in terms of a theme and a narrative and how much do you just let it happen?

Greenburg:  There is some narrative that you kind of sense from my meetings early on that we wanted to tell, whether it was Trotz's relationships at home with his son and his wife, or Ovechkin maturing, that you kind of sense, so you jump of those stories early and you see if it unfolds before your eyes.

But you have to be reactive.  I didn't know going in that they were going to have this kind of shootout.  If they're going to have that kind of shootout, you have to tell that story.  It's very important.

Backstrom, the glue - I think it's very important that we explain the glue.  We knew going in that that's how people are talking about him but it's important that we kind of showcase it and look for little moments along the way -- whether its in the locker room or on the ice -- where we can show that, instead of just hearing about it.  It's not enough just to get an interview.  Show little scenes that explain the kind of leadership qualities of Nicklas Backstrom.

Chimera and Ward.  We found that in the locker room and I just think that's a great relationship between two good buddies that are a very integral part of this team and real stalwarts.  And I didn't know they were that good of friends.  And now I know, and we're gonna capitalize on that.

You just kind of look for 'em.  Sometimes they'll happen because of the drama of the games, and sometimes they'll happen off the ice and you'll just notice it, and you just have to jump on it.

Japers' Rink:  You mentioned Coach Trotz and his wife and son Nolan, the trip to the zoo, that was I think my favorite moment because it captured Trotz as a person and Trotz as the coach and his coaching style, [Nolan] running back and forth to his parents.  What was your favorite moment from episide one?

Greenburg:  That was definitely one of them.  And that was one I felt really strongly about -- the integration of how he coaches versus how he's changed, having a special needs child, I think that was about as human as you can get.  I almost started crying when I saw it the first time.

That's a tribute to the people who are in this edit room that put it together, Brad and "Fritz" Mitchell.  [Note:  Fritz also marveled, now seeing on a regular basis, at the ability of Trotz's wife, Kim to manage the "seven day a week grind" that is caring for son Nolan.]

That was a moment.  My other favorite moments were [Capitals goaltending coach] Mitch Korn packing up his car and checking out of his hotel every time they leave.  He's a character, and we knew going in that he was going to be a character.  But I didn't know he was going to be so easy to showcase like that.  But then we saw the intensity on the ice when he worked with [Caps goalie Braden] Holtby and what kind of driving coach he is.

Another favorite moment was that interchange between Shaw and Bickell in the trainers' room, where Bickell's face is a mess and Shaw goes in and they start giving each other a hard time about their face and their hair.  That's a moment to remember, forever.

And then, of course, the aftermath of the Toews hit against the boards, and the way that NHL protocol for concussions took place.  The way that ['Hawks coach Joel Quenneville] Q reacted to it and said "Johnny, you gotta get off the ice" and we follow Johnny to the room where he's going to get concussion protocol and then we follow him into the locker room where he waits for the rest of his team after the win.  That's real behind-the-scenes cool stuff that you don't normally see.

Japers' Rink:  And that exchange between Trotz and [referee] Paul Devorski was fantastic at the end there.  What do you do with the refs in advance.  Do you talk to them?

Greenburg:  Oh yeah.  The refs were miked.  You have to make sure -- that series of discussions happened two or three months ago.  We started talking to the NHL, we talked to all of the refs and said 'We'd like to mike you.'  Devorski is a great ref and an unbelievable character.  It's rare that you can get that kind of exchange in any professional sport.

And it just threw a great light on  . . . you know when you see coaches during games, in any sport, barking at each other, you always wonder what they're saying.  Well for once, you can know what they're saying!

And you saw how we fit it into the storyline.  'Cause there were a lot of penalties and they were on the power play a lot.  Devorski just caught Trotz with that statement and it was kind of a funny exchange.

Japers' Rink:  One other question:  you've been at this a long time.  What drives you to produce a show like this?  What's your favorite thing in crafting a show like this?

Greenburg:  I think just seeing people's reactions as they're watching it.  Smiles on their faces and maybe getting a tear in their eye.  Just drawing out emotion in people and taking the NHL and this great sport and giving people a totally different perspective than they normally get by just watching a two and a half hour, three period game, and bringing the players and coaches to life.

Many thanks to Ross and EPIX for giving us the opportunity to follow the show from a different perspective, and enjoy episode 2 of the Road!