- Associated Press - Thursday, September 23, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - The hard knocks of hockey are getting reality show treatment.

The rival Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins will star in an HBO series centered around their showdown in the Winter Classic. The network and the NHL announced Thursday that four hour-long episodes of HBO’s “24/7” franchise will air before and after the Jan. 1 game at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field.

“I’ve got to believe there’s going to be some sort of distraction where they’ll probably be given access to places we normally are pretty private about,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “But, listen, it’s for the growth of the game, and it’s not too often that hockey is going to be featured on HBO. … Anything that makes hockey grow is great by me.”

Discussions between the league and network began in the spring, when HBO invited several NHL officials to watch a screening of its “Broad Street Bullies” documentary about the 1970s Philadelphia Flyers.

Meanwhile, the league picked Sidney Crosby’s Penguins and Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals to face each other in the fourth installment of the Winter Classic at the outdoor home of the Steelers.

“When we learned who the two teams were, it piqued our interest,” HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg said. “It helped, there’s no question. You’re taking the two biggest stars in the sport and the two biggest rivals and putting them on the ice.”

It also helped that the decisive game of the Stanley Cup finals between the Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks drew the NHL’s highest rating in 36 years.

“It’s great television,” Greenburg said. “I’m getting chills thinking back to that scene that was set in those two buildings in the finals.”

Previous subjects of “24/7” include boxers Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. and NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson. HBO also follows an NFL team each preseason in “Hard Knocks.”

“It’s pretty cool. It’s pretty sick,” Ovechkin said. “For the team, for the guys, for the organization, it’s a big step forward and we’re going to be on TV again, so that’s good.”

Those previous series all chronicled the preparation for competition, though. The NHL series will premiere Dec. 15 and air each of the next three Wednesdays.

“The NFL guys have a hard enough time wrapping their heads around whether or not to do it in the preseason,” said NHL chief operating officer John Collins, a former NFL executive. “I would safely say there is nobody who would let you into their team for four weeks during the regular season in the NFL.”

Of course, the NFL dwarfs the NHL in popularity and has much less motivation for allowing such access. Greenburg said viewers have told him of previous “24/7” series, “I’m not a boxing fan, or I’m not a NASCAR fan, but you guys hooked me in.” NHL execs hope for the same of this edition.

The New York Jets, the most recent subjects of “Hard Knocks,” certainly raised their profile. Coach Rex Ryan also drew criticism for his frequent and creative cursing.

“After watching what they did with ‘Hard Knocks’ and everything else … they’re big time,” Capitals general manager George McPhee said of HBO. “And we’re going to give them unfettered access because we thought ‘Hard Knocks’ was great television. And there are some things you may not want exposed, but that’s the price you pay for doing it right. If we give them unfettered access and it’s done right, people are going to get the right portrayal of NHL hockey players, and I think they’re really going to like them.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is confident his coaches and players will come across well on TV, cussing and all.

“It is HBO, and it’s cable,” he said.

Ovechkin joked that “if I’m going to say some bad words, it’s going to be Russian words, probably you guys don’t understand that.”

“This isn’t going to be G-rated,” Penguins GM Ray Shero said. “It’s going to be the way things are done and how we do things. It’s an emotional sport, which makes it exciting. It’s passionate. You’re going to be talking about the game and practices and things will come out.”

As with the other HBO sports reality series, the teams will have the power to keep cameras out of certain meetings and to nix content from episodes.

“We think it’s worth the risk,” Penguins president David Morehouse said. “We have the type of team that isn’t going to do a lot of embarrassing things behind the scenes, so we’re not that worried about it. We also think this is an unprecedented opportunity for the league and for the team. To have this kind of exposure is important.”