Quest for the Stanley Cup 2021 debriefing: Producer talks season secrets

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The final episode of any "Quest for the Stanley Cup" season is always an emotional one. Episode 7 of this year's edition, titled "Lightning Strikes Twice," was no exception.

From the tense Game 5 win by the Tampa Bay Lightning to coach Jon Cooper's heartfelt congratulations to the Montreal Canadiens in the handshake line to the boyish glee the players had in raising their second straight Cup, the seventh chapter of the series was its passionate apex.

It also made room for postgame celebrations in the Lightning locker room -- including a shirtless Nikita Kucherov getting a champagne shower before giving his now-infamous postgame news conference:

But it was much more than that, as the episode echoed back to previous chapters, closing the off-ice storylines that the producers had established through the playoffs to great payoffs.

"We had a few goals going into this season. One was to really strike a balance between the ice vs. the off-ice action," executive producer David Check told ESPN on Friday. "Because we're working with a team like Tampa, we were able to achieve that."

We spoke with Check about the season finale and asked him some of your lingering questions about the series. Please make sure you watch Episode 7 before reading this as it is heavy on spoilers as we discuss specific scenes in the finale.

Thanks for watching "Quest for the Stanley Cup" along with us on ESPN+ this postseason.

ESPN: The most emotional moment of the series is in this episode. Pat Maroon and Ryan McDonagh take the Stanley Cup around their neighborhood on a golf cart. They stop at a house with a giant "GO BOLTS!" sign on the front. They come to find out that a 23-year-old Lightning fan passed away last year and his mother explains that she believes he was watching over the team. Gotta admit: We cried, just like Maroon does here. How did that come together?

Check: It was a random house. It was full spontaneity mode. They were like "let's just knock and see what happens." They were in great spirits. They all just started to move around [the house] and then there wasn't a dry eye. It was such an emotional moment. You're not the only one that reacted that way. I spoke to the director of photography who told me he got emotional while shooting it. You clearly saw that Maroon was very moved by the moment too.

ESPN: There are so many callbacks to earlier episodes here, almost like you have storylines that get wrapped up: Maroon in his neighborhood, McDonagh and the coffee shop, the bookends of the series with Jon Cooper at his swimming pool with a cigar. Are you filming these vignettes knowing that if the Lightning win, you can close the loop on these stories?

Check: We were really pleased that it materialized that way. Some was good fortune and some of it was planning and producing. You're 100% cognizant that when you're shooting early on about how great it could be to come back and pay that off. It's aspirational. The NHL is not scripted.

You look at Blake Coleman, meeting his newborn earlier in the series. He got to see his newborn again during the postgame celebrations. You know, the first off-ice element that we shot was with Cooper smoking the cigar at the pool and reflected on how the Lightning won last year. The fact that we were able to come full circle and end the series that way? We can only plan so much. But the fact that the Lightning won, as soon as they did, we knew that was something we wanted to capture. And Cooper, fortunately enough, is very gracious with our crew.

The key to these shows being successful is the group that's editing it and the group that's out in the field and having those two groups communicating constantly. Episode 7 is the manifestation of those collective efforts.

ESPN: There's another key to making this a success, which is a willing participant. You get varying levels of access from teams, and sometimes it's because they're worried that the filming could be a distraction. Well, here are the Lightning, winners of the last two Stanley Cup, and they swung the doors open for you.

Check: The answer is simple. The Lightning get it. They just get it.

As a team, they were incredibly access-friendly, which enabled us to do our job effectively. The crew that was embedded with the Lightning became extended members of the family, to the point where Victor Hedman walks into the frame early in the season and says, "Hey, you're back, you're our good luck charm." That bodes well for access. If Victor Hedman believes that, I imagine a lot of other members of the team do too. If we're blending into the background, then these are the results.

I have to give the NHL a ton of credit, too. I've worked on these shows for other sports. A level of access is embedded into [hockey] culture. We're wiring refs. We're wiring players and coaches. That's part of it. I give a lot of credit to the NHL for fostering that atmosphere. That makes shows like this possible.

ESPN: There's always one shot every episode that blows me away. The one you got of Brendan Gallagher, moments after being teary-eyed in a press conference, walking out of the arena following Game 5 and passing a giant video screen of the Lightning celebrating; that's just spectacular.

Check: Being able to nail a shot like that is a special talent and one that's forged through being a high-level [director of photography] but also being in those environments and having that experience. Steve Lamme, who captured that shot you're referring to, has shot a number of Stanley Cup Finals and has developed a sixth sense for capturing those shots.

I fully recognize that we're spoiled. There aren't many DPs that could have composed that shot like Steve did.

ESPN: We asked some of our readers to submit questions they had about the season. Nick wants to know: "How was it working with Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello? Did he allow same access behind the scenes for the Isles that other teams did?"

Check: We work in concert with the NHL and have certain access guidelines. Wiring players, wiring coaches. The Islanders adhered to that. We got what we needed from the Islanders.

ESPN: There were a number of questions about why the faces of Montreal Canadiens players weren't shown in the dressing room. I'm pretty sure this wasn't just an artistic choice, right?

Check: We're still dealing with COVID. There are certain protocols. We were dealing with a Canadian team in the Stanley Cup Final, and we were crossing borders to shoot. There are different protocols in Canada than there are in the U.S. at this point. We tried our best to toe the line and adhere to these protocols. That's how we executed.

When you're in a locker room of that ilk and the coach took his mask off, the players were supposed to have their masks on. So that was something that we were sensitive to.

ESPN: Rebecca wants to know why you don't start the show in the first round.

Check: That's just how the schedule landed this year. But we also do the math: Doing eight first-round matchups vs. doing four second-round matchups. You can do the math. It's a different price point to execute that show, but it's something that will be discussed.

ESPN: Tony wants to know if players and teams had a say in what goes on the air, or if you control the content.

Check: There are certain guardrails, but we've learned from producing the show what is acceptable and what is not. But I would say that the NHL has done a great job getting a peek behind the curtain. There is very little that we take out of the show. There's a lot of content that is pretty raw. There's not a shortage of material for us to work with, that's for sure.

ESPN: Finally, the biggest challenge for the show was probably last postseason in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles, but I'm sure there were still challenges for this season. What were some of them?

Check: Even in the States, there were certain COVID protocols that we adhered to. You'll notice that nearly every off-ice feature that we shot with a player was outdoors. With the exception of the games, if we were shooting with players, we were outdoors.

It wasn't necessarily a challenge, it was a creative framework on how we did the shoots, and being respectful of the fact that while we made great strides with COVID, there were still protocols we had to adhere to.