Will the NHL Stoke More Interest in Its 2015 Winter Classic by Going With Epix over HBO?

Documentary series returns tonight on new network

Every New Year, the National Hockey League takes one of its regular-season games outdoors—an old-school showdown in the freezing-cold elements. And this time, it's looking for innovative ways to draw fans to the Winter Classic.

The promotion begins at 10 tonight with the first of a four-part reality series called 2015 Road to the Winter Classic. In the past, the special aired on HBO, available only to subscribers. But after negotiations broke down with HBO over that point, the NHL decided to take its show to Epix—and a wider audience.

Viewers will get a fly-on-the-wall look at the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals as they work their way toward a New Year's Day game at Washington, D.C.'s Nationals Park. In addition to airing on Epix, a relative newcomer that stands to benefit from hockey's 60 million U.S. fans, the series will be available to stream on the teams' websites, Epix.com, and NHL.com.

Fans can also easily find the show through both companies' Facebook pages; the NHL App for Android and iPhone; and the Epix App for Xbox 360, PS3, PS4, Roku and Windows 8. That reach appealed to Epix.

"The NHL provides its 60 million hockey fans access wherever they consume content," Epix CMO Kirk Iwanowski said. "Epix gets a chance to expand our subscriber base by extending our reach directly to those fans."

That willingness to allow non-subscribers to see the production was a selling point for the league. It also helped that the network hired 52-time Emmy-winning producer Ross Greenburg. Greenburg, who pioneered the reality sports format at HBO with its 24/7 and Hard Knocks efforts, said Epix's vision to "allow people to access the show by going to the Internet really opens up the floodgates, compounding the number of people who can watch."

NHL COO John Collins said the goal is to draw all hockey fans, not just those loyal to a certain team. "Nobody cancels their Super Bowl party because they don't like who is playing," he added.

The Winter Classic has proven to be a viewing hit. Last year's game tied for the second-largest regular-season TV audience in NHL history with 4.4 million viewers. And the 2014 game set a streaming record for NBC Sports Live. League officials expect to increase Web numbers in 2015 since hockey fans are digitally savvy: 60 percent are likely to download or stream video on a mobile device. 

To keep fans engaged between episodes, Greenburg's team turned material that normally would end up on the cutting-room floor into short vignettes for digital platforms. The hope is the two- to four-minute pieces will stoke conversations on social media until the Jan. 1 game. "We are looking for digital and social to extend the story beyond the one-hour show," said John Pacino, NHL vp of product development and social media.

The league and the network are also offering prizes such as game tickets via social media. "By running several promotions leading up to the premiere, we have been able to drive significant excitement and reward fans for their activity," David Weiner, NHL director of social media, said. And one grand-prize winner will get an all-access pass to the game.