November 20, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

HBO, Winter Classic to give Red Wings their greatest exposure yet

Detroit — They’ll start setting the stage this week. The cameras already are rolling.

And ready or not, the Red Wings — and the home they long ago dubbed Hockeytown — are about to step into the brightest spotlight they’ve ever seen.

The long-awaited Winter Classic featuring two Original Six teams — the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs — at Michigan Stadium is a virtual sellout, the team announced Tuesday afternoon in a joint media presentation with NHL officials at Joe Louis Arena. The Hockeytown Winter Festival built around the New Year’s Day game is taking shape, too, with more plans to be unveiled today at Comerica Park.

And while construction workers will start laying the foundation for a rink there Friday — they’ll get to work in Ann Arbor on Dec. 2, a couple days after the Michigan-Ohio State game — an HBO film crew already has been in town shooting footage for its popular “24/7: Road to the Winter Classic” documentary, a four-part series which debuts Dec. 14.

“The best spotlight is the Stanley Cup Finals, and we’ve had that spotlight on us more than a few times,” said Tom Wilson, the president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment. “But I think to have the focus on hockey for two weeks, and then with the HBO special, getting behind-the-scenes shots of the character and quality of the people we have, for that two weeks you sort of own the hockey world here in the city. And you’re sharing it with a national audience. And that feels good.”

It should, and it will, particularly here in Detroit, where the fans — and the team, frankly — have often felt underappreciated by the NHL. That sounds more than a little bit myopic, I know. (Only Pittsburgh made more NBC network appearances last season.) But after all those years living in exile in the Western Conference, it’s also understandable.

For the next month, however, there won’t be any doubt about where the Red Wings stand, or what they mean to this league.

“You’re probably never going to be satisfied with what you get,” Wilson said, “but this is our chance to really embrace the history we have here.”

It’s the NHL’s chance, too. And one it plans to make good on, even as it focuses on the bigger picture.

“In every respect, the Winter Classic in Hockeytown is going to be the biggest one ever, and probably forever,” said John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer. “I think it’ll stand for all time as the biggest game we’ll ever do.”

Revenue flows

In many respects, this is the beginning of a new kind of expansion for the NHL. Collins has gone public this fall with the league’s ambitious plans to grow annual hockey-related revenue to $4 billion by 2016, largely by expanding national revenue streams. (When Collins arrived from the NFL in 2006, the league generated $2.2 billion in revenue.)

This Winter Classic, which is expected to break the outdoor hockey attendance record of 104,173 set at the 2010 Michigan-Michigan State game, is a “big piece of it, and probably the most visible,” Collins said. But while it offers a unique marketing platform for advertising partners and gives casual fans — and non-fans — a reason to watch an NHL regular-season game, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg.

This winter, the Wings-Leafs showcase on Jan. 1 will be followed by a new “Stadium Series” featuring four more outdoor games — in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — surrounding February’s Sochi Olympics. You can expect more regular-season games to be played overseas. And while nothing’s decided yet, Collins talked confidently Tuesday about the likelihood of a World Cup renewal beginning in September 2015 with games in North America and Europe.

Throw in a new Canadian broadcasting rights deal that should be completed by year’s end, and suddenly that lockout everyone endured a year ago seems like a distant memory.

Some debts can’t be repaid, obviously. But NHL officials on Tuesday referenced an estimate of $30 million in economic impact from this Winter Classic, based in part on revenue generated in Boston ($36 million in 2010) and Pittsburgh ($22 million in 2011).

The Wings say they’ve already sold nearly 80 percent of a possible 280,000 seats for the ticketed events in this year’s weeklong festival. Some 30-35 percent were purchased by Canadian fans, meaning sold-out hotels for the holidays and, presumably, healthy bar tabs at local restaurants in Detroit and Ann Arbor.

Naked exposure

But some of the best advertising, honestly, will come at the expense of the players’ privacy, as the HBO crews will spend the month of December embedded in their lives.

This will be the third NHL installment of “24/7,” and it’ll be hard to live up to the first two, from Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau’s epic expletive-laced locker room speech to Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov’s eccentric takes on everything from the solar system to tiger poaching in China.

“I don’t know if we have one of those,” Smith laughed, when I asked him if the Wings had a character quite like Bryzgalov. “No. We don’t. I can tell you that. We don’t.”

But they do have some characters. (Don’t be surprised if Tomas Tatar makes a name for himself.) And the way they’re playing right now — another home loss to Nashville on Tuesday night — there could be some drama, too. (And plenty of swearing.)

“What I think is nice about it is it’s so raw,” said Bentley Weiner, the show’s coordinating producer. “We don't script anything, we don't set anything up. That's the beauty of ‘24/7.’ ”

That’s also a scary thought going in, Wilson noted. But he tells a story from the league meetings a few years ago, when the owners from Pittsburgh and Washington were talking about how “frightened” they were about participating in the inaugural show.

“As we all know, it’s pretty naked emotionally — and in other ways, I guess,” Wilson joked. “But they said, ‘It was the single-best thing we ever did.’ Washington talked about how their TV ratings doubled the rest of the year, because people got to know the players in ways that they never would have.”

So, no stage fright here. The Red Wings insist they’re ready to play a starring role.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/JohnNiyo

The Red Wings' losing streak might provide some drama for HBO's documentary crew as the Winter Classic approaches. / David Guralnick / Detroit News
More John Niyo