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Pageantry of the Winter Classic

PHILADELPHIA -- For the longest time, the NHL’s often-complicated code included this basic tenet: What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room.

Now, the truth of life in the NHL, at least as it applies to being included in the Winter Classic, is this: What happens in the locker room goes on television.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced Monday that the fifth annual Winter Classic game would be played at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on the afternoon of Jan. 2 -- the commissioner acknowledged it was the worst-kept secret in sport -- and also confirmed what had long been assumed: that HBO cameras would be rolling in the weeks leading up to the event after last season’s inaugural series "24/7 Road To The Winter Classic" proved to be such a wild success.

Because it had never been done before in hockey circles, certainly not with this kind of access, no one knew what the final product would look like. Big picture, no one knew how that product, however it turned out, would play outside the hockey world itself.

Suffice it to say, the series that chronicled the lead-up to last season’s Winter Classic at Heinz Field between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals made for wildly compelling television, regardless of whether you knew the difference between a Bylsma and a Boudreau.

The series won a Sports Emmy Award for outstanding edited sports special and was nominated in two other categories, while the NHL grabbed monster exposure and became a talking point in circles that wouldn’t necessarily be talking the game.

The executive producer of HBO Sports, Rick Bernstein, acknowledged Sunday no one knew what to expect, but when they saw the result, they wanted more.

”As someone who grew up in Alabama, who didn’t grow up with hockey, I had no idea what to expect, and speaking for myself and others who are hockey fans, this well exceeded our expectations,” he told a small group of reporters Monday.

“Just had no idea it was going to be this popular, this entertaining, this compelling. To see a side of the sport that I guess no one’s ever seen before, except for those who played the game,” Bernstein said.

And hasn’t that always been the knock on the game -- the explanation thrown up for why it doesn’t always sell well in parts of the United States? Not accessible. Sometimes that meant the game was too fast for the uninitiated. Sometimes it meant the players with their helmets weren’t as readily identifiable as other athletes.

After the lockout, one of the consistent promises made by the league and the players was that they were going to open more doors, promote the game’s stars, let people get a glimpse of the personalities underneath the helmets.

Whether that goal has been widely achieved is an argument for another day -- certainly problems with access during the playoffs and at events like the All-Star Game remain sources of complaints from some members of the media -- but the HBO series certainly sets the bar for revealing a rarely, if ever seen, side of the game.

That’s not to say there aren’t reservations moving forward with Round 2.

New York Rangers GM Glen Sather, as traditional a guy as there is given his long connection to the game as a player, coach and manager, said Monday he had some “mixed feelings” about the Rangers being involved.

“I was a little bit concerned about what I saw last year. I mean it wasn’t all wine and roses; it was some crags of roses exposed that had some pricklers on it too,” he said.

To be sure, there were some raw moments captured by HBO during last season’s four-part series. The Washington Capitals were in the midst of an eight-game winless streak when the series began, and there were some emotional, colorful exchanges involving head coach Bruce Boudreau and some of the Caps.

But those moments made for dramatic television.

It was raw and real.

At one point during the filming, there were some in the Caps room who wanted the cameras gone. But the deal had been struck, and in the end, the series captured the start of what would be a Capitals turnaround that ultimately saw them win their division and finish at the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

Ultimately, Sather said he thinks the experience will be good for his young Rangers squad.

“I’d like the fans to get to know that these people are real. A lot of the players other than their pictures in the program aren’t seen without their helmets off. And they’re all good people; they’re good guys and I think those things will prove itself out,” he said.

We give Sather kudos for getting in the spirit himself Monday, apologizing to fans in Philadelphia for having “kicked the hell out of you” twice in the Stanley Cup finals when he was in Edmonton. Flyers chairman Ed Snider jumped up and noted that it wasn’t the Rangers who’d done that.

“I remember kicking the hell out of the Rangers on the way to our Cups,” Snider reminded Sather.

One thing is clear moving forward: If you want to be a part of the Winter Classic machine -- and make no mistake this event is now a giant revenue-generating machine producing record television ratings and sold-out sponsorships -- then you’ve got to play the HBO game.

Philadelphia head coach Peter Laviolette watched last season's series with his boys.

Did he have to clap his hands over their ears for some of the raw stuff?

“You know my boys have been on the inside of our locker room, so there was no hand-clapping over the ears necessary,” Laviolette said.

He understands the challenges that will come with having cameras everywhere for a month or so.

“I don’t like being miked and I don’t like being taped,” Laviolette admitted.

But, “if the deal is that, in order to get a Winter Classic and to be so well represented like they were by HBO, the two teams and the National Hockey League, I’m all for it, every day of the week,” Laviolette said.

“I thought it was a special series, so we’re looking forward to that and whether I like to be miked or not is irrelevant,” the coach said.