Quest for the Stanley Cup started in 2016 as a behind-the-scenes NHL playoff series from famed producer Ross Greenburg, the former president of HBO Sports, in association with NHL Original Productions. It aired on Showtime for its first two seasons, then moved to ESPN+ in 2018 as part of their expanded hockey coverage, and has been there since and has been generally well-received by those looking for behind-the-scenes footage from each year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But this year’s NHL playoffs are dramatically different thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, including differences in when they’re held (months later than normal), where they’re held (bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto rather than games at each team’s home rinks), and even how they’re held (an initial qualifying and seeding round took place before the full playoffs). And those changes could make this year’s version of Quest for the Stanley Cup particularly interesting, especially from an access point of view. This six-episode series will debut Wednesday, Sept. 2, and it will air on ESPN+ in the U.S. and on the NHL’s YouTube channel in Canada. Here’s a trailer for it that the NHL released Tuesday:
And here are some notable quotes from a piece by NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti:
“The bubble becomes a very important character in this series, so we have to kind of pick and choose who we want to follow, but we’re confined to where we can follow them,” Greenburg said. “We’re also having to kind of give the perspective of the players, coaches and teams in working daily within the bubble. It changes the storytelling.
…”This is the one that people will go back to from an archival standpoint and watch again and again,” NHL senior executive vice president and chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “The fact that we have exclusive access in this bubble with those cameras that will then be able produce these shows, I think is beyond unique. Not that we’ve gotten into a habit at all, but people love our all-access shows. They get you inside in an exclusive way that the normal fan just does not get to see.
“But now we’ve added this whole other layer of being inside a bubble that no one gets to see, and I do think that’s what’s going to make these shows as unique as they’ve ever been.”
There are absolutely upsides to this for fans. The bubble setup and no-fans restrictions have meant that fans have been limited to following these games via TV and radio broadcasts, and it’s great that there’s now going to be a way for fans to see some of what’s been going on away from that bubble, especially apart from the games. And this is an experienced production group that’s done a good job with these kinds of shows in the past, and even with this one being more challenging than normal thanks to the need to balance playoff storytelling and bubble storytelling, it should still be a compelling product.
However, there are a few things to be concerned about here from a media perspective. For one, the NHL has been very heavy-handed with who it’s allowed in this bubble, initially planning only to let league-employed writers inside (and receiving protests from the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association, The Associated Press, and the Associated Press Sports Editors as a result). This has changed a little bit since then, with some writers from independent media outlets allowed in the buildings, but many of them aren’t allowed to talk to players or coaches in person (and those at the lower levels of access even have to ask press conference questions over Zoom).
Yes, absolutely, there are COVID-19 safety issues to consider, and those should be a factor in any media policy in these times. But there are certainly still ways for media to interact with players and coaches safely (you wouldn’t have a league-produced behind-the-scenes series if there wasn’t), and the amount of access given to this in-house behind-the-scenes series during this time raises some questions about the league’s approach to its own media employees versus independent media. Access matters, as those quotes from Mayer illustrate. And it also matters who the league decides to allow that access to.
Of course, the NHL is not alone there. The NBA’s bubble has been quite restrictive as well, only allowing in a few independent journalists. The NFL reportedly plans to keep pregame and sideline reporters off the field this year, and some teams have gone even further in trying to restrict what information reporters can relay from practice. And while many of these access-restricting moves are cited as “due to COVID-19,” with all of them, it’s worth questioning both if health concerns are really the issue here (or if they could be solved with a more moderate approach, such as masked-up reporters asking questions from a distance rather than not being allowed in the building) and if this access will actually be restored in a post-pandemic future. Access has always been a fight, and some teams and leagues may very well try to continue to favor in-house media even after the current concerns.
At any rate, none of that’s necessarily a negative about the show Quest for the Stanley Cup. This is a successful series at this point, made by a bunch of smart people, and even a normal edition of Quest for the Stanley Cup would have its place and would have its fans. And Mayer is absolutely right that there will be extra interest in this one given the uniqueness of this year, these playoffs, and these bubbles. And it’s not like the NHL’s the only one shooting all-access series at this point either; HBO/NFL Films’ Hard Knocks is proceeding, and the NBA is running some content operations inside their bubble. But all of this access for people working for leagues does seem to illustrate that you absolutely can provide safe media coverage inside a bubble. The leagues at the moment are just choosing to let that coverage be provided mostly by the people working for them.