NHL puts its stars front and center in Amazon docu-series set to debut in October (2024)

Paul Martin already had met with a bunch of NHL players during All-Star weekend in Toronto in February — most of whom, to be honest, he had never heard of, as an Englishman with no hockey background — when William Nylander sat down across from him.

Martin is the co-founder of Box To Box, the production company behind sports documentary series such as “Drive to Survive” about Formula 1, “Full Swing” about pro golf and “Break Point” about pro tennis. And one of the great things about walking in blind to a new sport is a blissful obliviousness of any third-rail topics. So, Martin casually asked Nylander — out of genuine curiosity, not as a stress test of sorts — when was the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs had won the Stanley Cup.

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Nylander laughed and leaned in.

“That’s kind of a big thing up here,” he said.

Just like that, Martin knew he had one of his main stars. Or, as he refers to the professional athletes in his shows, “characters.” And yes, contrary to conventional wisdom, it turns out hockey has some characters.

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It’s one of the first thing Martin hears when someone asks him about the new (as-yet untitled) six-episode NHL-centric series that will debut on Amazon’s Prime Video in October: Hockey players are boring. Hockey players go out of their way to stand out as little as possible. Auto racing, tennis and golf are individual sports; hockey’s a team sport. You’ll never get individual players, particularly superstars, to truly buy in on anything that elevates them above their teams.

But to hear Martin tell it, it really wasn’t that difficult at all.

“We heard that a lot,” he said. “Whether we were just fortunate or whether our processes bring it out of them once we dug in, I never really saw it as an issue. The younger generation is coming through. It’s just society in general. They’re so used to sharing a lot of their lives and their story on Instagram or whatever it is.”

NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said that Amazon zeroed in on approximately 20 players, starting after the All-Star break. That includes Connor McDavid, Matthew Tkachuk, Auston Matthews, Sidney Crosby, Leon Draisaitl and Connor Bedard. That McDavid, Draisaitl and Tkachuk are all in the Stanley Cup Final is serendipity for the Box To Box crew, which knew that plenty of storylines to which they had devoted a lot of time and filming would get left on the cutting-room floor because of early playoff departures. The filming process is essentially a guessing game as to which players will be both entertaining and around long enough to devote swaths of an episode to.

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The arduous process of cutting months of footage down to six episodes — the quick turnaround between the end of the Final and the start of the season made eight or 10 episodes somewhat unfeasible — has barely begun, but for those inclined to read the tea leaves, here are the players singled out in the official press release touting the show: McDavid, Tkachuk, Draisaitl, Jacob Trouba, David Pastrnak, Jeremy Swayman, Quinn Hughes, Jack Eichel, Nylander, Filip Forsberg and Gabriel Landeskog, who has spent the past two seasons trying to work his way back from a major knee injury.

Marketing its stars has never been the NHL’s strong suit, and Mayer was quick to point out that the Stanley Cup is still the league’s biggest star and the focal point of its promotional material. But the Amazon show is part of a larger effort to elevate more NHL stars to household-name status. It’s a Box to Box production distributed by Amazon, so the NHL’s stake in the show isn’t financial; it’s entirely promotional.

“Two years ago, our promos would be ‘Tampa Bay vs. Colorado tonight,’” Mayer said. “Now, it’s ‘Connor McDavid against Matthew Tkachuk, OilersPanthers for the Cup.’ You see it in all sports, and we’re realizing that the stars bring the audience.”

So you can expect to see footage of Trouba painting at home, of McDavid at a dinner party in Edmonton, of Brady Tkachuk supporting his brother in the playoffs, of life at home with players’ partners and families. The hope is not simply to give die-hard hockey fans a closer look at the sport they love, but to hook casual sports fans into the world of the NHL, the way “Drive To Survive” did with F1, which has experienced a massive boom in popularity in the United States since the show debuted in March of 2019.

And it’s not always the biggest stars who get the most screen time. “Drive to Survive” fans know to expect about two out of 10 episodes every season to focus on the big smile and big personality of Daniel Ricciardo, an eight-time race winner who’s now a back-of-the-pack also-ran. And, for years, the cellar-dwelling Haas racing team would get a spotlight episode or two because of its charismatic (and profane) team leader, Guenther Steiner. Meanwhile, Max Verstappen, one of the most dominant athletes in all of global sports, is typically an afterthought on the show.

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In the end, personality and drama win out. And it sounds like Nylander and Pastrnak — two world-class players, mind you — might be the biggest breakout stars of the show.

“Pastrnak is one of the funniest players I’ve ever sat in a room with,” Martin said. “But you want to find that mix. When we look at these types of shows, you don’t want all the superstars, but equally, you don’t want all the journeymen. You want that right mix. You want to look at things from slightly different perspectives.”

Agent Pat Brisson first brought Martin to a Los Angeles Kings game late last season, then Mayer brought him to the Stanley Cup Final clincher in Las Vegas, taking him onto the ice and into the winning locker room afterward. The Kings game was Martin’s first, and he told Mayer that all he knew about the sport was “Wayne Gretzky and that they fight.” Mayer politely told him that they don’t really fight all that much anymore.

“Thirty seconds into the game, two guys start to fight,” Martin said with a laugh. “Growing up with no background in hockey, never really watching a lot of hockey in my life, all I knew was that the Stanley Cup was so identifiable and that hockey is mad Canadians that fight. But I knew there had to be more to it than that, if we can just get on the inside. And that’s what excited me about this. Maybe you find characters that you or the league take for granted, but I’m in this luxurious position where it’s all new to me and everyone’s interesting. I’m a kid in a candy shop.”

This isn’t the NHL’s first foray into behind-the-scenes documentary-style programming. There was HBO’s “24/7: Road to the Winter Classic,” which eventually morphed into a much more PG-rated basic-cable version. Amazon produced “All Or Nothing,” a series about the 2020-21 Maple Leafs season, and two more traditional documentaries: “Saving Sakic” and “Chosen One: Alexandre Daigle.”

And yes, the Box To Box crew got tossed out of a locker room by a fuming coach once or twice. Hey, it’s tradition.

“We’ve probably been kicked out of a dressing room on every show we’ve ever done,” Martin said with a laugh. “It’s just part of sports access — you’re suddenly in rooms where it absolutely goes off. It’s par for the course. Hockey is seen as a very macho world, very alpha kind of world. Hopefully we get to do this for more seasons after this, so we’re probably expecting more of that.”

(Photo of William Nylander and Connor McDavid: Michael Chisholm / NHLI via Getty Images)

NHL puts its stars front and center in Amazon docu-series set to debut in October (2)NHL puts its stars front and center in Amazon docu-series set to debut in October (3)

Mark Lazerus is a senior NHL writer for The Athletic based out of Chicago. He has covered the Blackhawks for 11 seasons for The Athletic and the Chicago Sun-Times after covering Notre Dame’s run to the BCS championship game in 2012-13. Before that, he was the sports editor of the Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkLazerus

NHL puts its stars front and center in Amazon docu-series set to debut in October (2024)
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