EPIX Chicago Blackhawks

During episode one of this season's Road to the NHL Outdoor Classics, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock speaks up before any of his players can.

"How long are you guys here?" he asks the crew from Epix. "A month? So, misery. Pure misery for a month. They're all going to say it doesn't matter, it doesn't affect anything, it's all good. Welcome, guys."

Babcock has done this before as coach of the Detroit Red Wings. This is the seventh time a film crew has documented teams featured in the NHL's Winter Classic, the third time on Epix. One storyline you can expect is Babcock coaching against the Red Wings the Centennial Classic on New Year's Day.

Babcock's honesty, although sarcastic, speaks for the trust and enthusiasm NHL players find in the camera crews that follow them for a month.

"I cracked up," executive producer Ross Greenburg says of Babcock's first quote.

"I had met with him two months ago, him and [general manager] Lou Lamoriello and [president] Brendan Shanahan. I explained what we'd need, that we wouldn't intrude on anything and that we'd be flies on the wall. And we're professionals and we'll allow you to professionally get your work done. Then I see that clip. He's hysterical. We had to use it. It was too good."

While president of HBO Sports, Greenburg worked on the first two installments of this series, then known as 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic. After two years away from the HBO series, which ran for four seasons, he was brought back when Epix took over.

Each episode covers a one-week frame. The 2016 edition has already seen a few firsts halfway through the four-episode season. Considering there is both a game in Canada on Jan. 1 (Red Wings at Maple Leafs) and a Jan. 2 game in the U.S. (Blackhawks at Blues), Road to the NHL Outdoor Classics is carrying the load of two games and four teams. Or, four plots. To the viewer, this means more variety than ever.

"My budget hasn't increased, but the resources have," Greenburg says with a laugh.

At the show's production center in New York City, each of four edit rooms is devoted to a team. Greenburg explain he did not plan for that to happen, but the edit staff organized itself that way. Each group keeps daily contact with its crew in Toronto, Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago.

Greenburg already feels his staff has the ability to focus more on a higher quality of work, with four teams, as there is less pressure to produce quantity of content.

"Each individual show needs to feel fresh," he says. "I always look for moments. Whether it's a scene of four young Toronto Maple Leafs going shopping at the local Christmas market or Ryan Reeves getting treated for an injury prior to a game, these are special moments that the viewer doesn't normally see.

"We're really able to get to know them as people. It's fascinating to see how they transition from husband and father to warrior an hour later. That whole process of taking them behind the scenes is what the series is meant to be."

Another notable part of the series came in the arena, thanks to Henrik Zetterberg. After a Red Wings' loss, Detroit shut the door on the media. But Zetterberg went into a passionate, fatherly speech with Epix cameras in the room.

"I was surprised it didn't go more viral," Greenburg says. "I can't remember a time a captain's speech behind closed doors was open to the American and Canadian public."

Another example of players having such a comfort level while being wired for sound is Sidney Crosby. The Penguins are not playing outdoors this season, but Greenburg, while working on Showtime's "All Access: Quest for the Stanley Cup," a similar series capturing the final two rounds of the 2016 playoffs, had a notable rapport with the Stanley Cup MVP.

"Obviously, we were going to ask for a mic on Sidney Crosby," he recalls. "So he took the mic for the second game of the conference finals and they won the game. Then they won the series. He started asking for the mic because he's very superstitious. During the Stanley Cup Finals, we had him mic'd up, I believe for every game, because he wouldn't take the mic off until they lost."

Sports can be about strategy and secrets. A decade ago, allowing rivals to see the insides of locker rooms and players' personal lives could be considered blasphemy. Now, it is embraced.

"They don't mind wearing microphones," Greenburg says. "They know we're not going to get anything in there that'll embarrass them. I think they like being real.

"Two years ago, we had the Capitals. It was fascinating to watch Barry Trotz kind of use the series and the show to set a new culture and vision for the Capitals. It was fun to be a part of it. He explained to me a month in advance the change he was trying to put in the culture in the locker room and on the ice. Low and behold, we kind of showcased it and exposed it."

Road to the NHL Outdoor Classics has two remaining Friday night episodes on Dec. 30 and Jan. 6, with the finale showcasing the two games in Toronto and St. Louis. The program airs on Epix in the U.S. and Rogers in Canada. The series also is available for free on NHL.com.

-- Follow Jeff Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband. Like Jeff Eisenband on Facebook.

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