SVG Sit-Down: Inside the Wild World of Producing Quest for the Stanley Cup with NHL’s Steve Mayer and Check Point Productions’ David Check
New episodes of the docu-series drop exclusively on ESPN+ in the U.S. each Friday
The Stanley Cup Final begins Monday evening, and with it comes the dramatic culmination of one of sport’s great marathons: the battle to carve one’s name into Lord Stanley’s Cup.
For the past six seasons, the NHL has taken fans behind the scenes to experience what it’s like to soldier through the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The original documentary-style all-access series Quest for the Stanley Cup is back this year with a seven-part series of 30-minute episodes that premiere every Friday at 6 p.m. ET through July 16. It’s the fourth straight season the show is exclusive to ESPN+ subscribers in the U.S. In Canada, viewers can watch on the NHL’s YouTube channel.
What’s it like to produce such a high-end series at the frenetic pace of the playoffs? SVG sat down with the executive producers of the show — Steve Mayer, EVP/chief content officer, NHL, and David Check, president, Check Point Productions, the league’s production partner on the show — to discuss the challenges of producing an all-access series in the COVID era, what creative decisions needed to be made to work around them, and how this year’s edition is different from any of the seasons before.
Note: Both Mayer and Check offered praise to key members of the production team making this year’s edition of Quest for the Stanley Cup possible. Heading up postproduction and editorial efforts on the series were Tim Mullen and Jackie Decker. Field producers were Jason Katz and Darryl Lepik. Cinematographers and DPs were Steve Lamme and Rob Newman.This is the sixth season of Quest For The Stanley Cup. What’s new this year?
Mayer: The way the world has changed — even from the beginning of our playoffs to now, with fans being let in the door and now the Canadian exemption — just makes it different. At the end of the day, this is what the show is all about: the quest for the Cup and [how] different teams might take a different route to get there. You might have to go through different teams. You might have to deal with protocols and testing and all the things that we’re dealing with as the world is slowly but surely opening up. In the end, winning that Cup is what it’s all about, and we think the show portrays that.
Check: The first episode was titled “Familiar Foes.” Reason being, in those first-round match-ups, those teams have played each other eight times in the regular season, which is unprecedented. They were very familiar with each other. That’s why you got a lot of overtime games. That’s why you got a lot of really closely contested matches. We played up that familiar-foes angle.
This is my first season on the show, and Quest has a great history. This year, we set about trying to strike a different balance between games and adding off-ice features. Very early on in the first episode, you’re seeing [Tampa Bay Lighting] head coach John Cooper smoking a cigar and reminiscing about winning in the bubble and how difficult that was. Then, about five or six minutes later, the captain of the [Colorado] Avalanche [Gabriel Landeskog] is changing diapers and is playing a game that night. We’re really seeking to “dimension-alize” these players so that, when you get to the games, you care about them more. We’re very determined to strike that balance.
The NHL has done a great job of creating a culture in the postseason where access is expected. That is not true in every professional sport. It is pretty much understood that, in every game, you are wiring a player from both teams, you are wiring a coach from both teams, and you’re wiring a referee, [which] leads to giving viewers a backstage pass to what’s going on in this postseason. The level of access here is really impressive.
What challenges have you needed to overcome in creating an all-access show in the hybrid COVID environment we’re in now? What precautions do you need to take for your crew? Do you use any different kind of gear to effectively do what you need to do?
Check: Prior to shooting with any players, it was very clear that, if we’re going to be shooting these off-ice features with these players, we’re going to be outside, and we’re going to be social-distanced. That is what’s most different from last year. Even when Landeskog is changing diapers, he’s doing it on his front lawn. We were with [Lightning defenseman] Victor Hedman this week, and we were outside.
Would I call it a challenge? We knew, given the COVID realities, [that] was the way we were going to tackle it. All of the creatives that we’re coming up with, with players and coaches and team personnel, [are] going to be outdoors.
Mayer: The number-one priority for the league is to have one of these teams hold up that Stanley Cup at the end of it. Even last year in the bubble, ultimately, if we didn’t get to that final moment, we would have failed. It has been a lot bumpier this year. We’ve had plenty of teams have to take time off, and plenty of players had COVID. But, ultimately, we want to get to the end, and I think our medical team is very conservative, and rightly so.
We’ve known from day one, with regards to this show, we were going to have to make adjustments. It wasn’t going to be all-access, free-rein. We knew we would get access but under certain rules and regulations. And you know what? We got a lot of amazing people, who have great relationships, who are trusted. We’re shooting outside and [from] farther away, but we’re still getting the stuff. I dare you as a viewer to find the difference.
Now, with fans coming back in the building, you can feel that intensity. You can see the dynamic when we go to a game in Canada, where there are no fans. That’s a nice difference in some ways. You go from an overtime thriller in the U.S. to the Canadian game, and there’s such a difference. In some ways, I kind of like it [from a storytelling perspective] because it reminds us of what it was and what it can be. There’s no question, our buildings and our events are bigger and grander and better with fans, but, without them, I think that’s part of the show: the dynamic is different, and we need to show that.
Check: We can’t predict outcomes. When you’re putting together a show like this, you need to be nimble as a production team. I think that’s predicated on robust communication between our field group and our post group. Without that more than daily communication but constant communication, things can go a little awry.
I’ll use a very specific example. In the first round, Tampa wins in six. Carolina-Nashville is going the distance to seven. We know that Tampa is going to have a few days off. We know that Tampa are the defending champs. We know that our production team has a good relationship with John Cooper, so we go down to Tampa. We scramble our crew and get them down there, and we shoot an attention-grabbing scene to start the series. But we couldn’t have predicted that. We have to just be at the ready, and that’s an exhilarating part of doing these shows. It’s also challenging at times, too.
What are the keys to working on a show with such a quick turnaround time? How stressful might it be, and what kind of hours go into turning something around that feels as fresh as possible when critical games are happening every night?
Mayer: We deliver on Fridays. From week to week, I don’t know when the playoffs series is going to end. Dave doesn’t know when they end. A Game 7 could be on a Saturday; it could be on Monday. There’s no way to predict. And decisions of “Are we putting this in this episode or the next episode?” are ultimately up to Dave and the production team. But talk about turnaround! Forget trying to do these shows week to week and how hard they are and how intense. Those decisions [like] “Hey, you know what? We really need to include this game because it’s a big game in this episode” — that’s when it gets crazy.
Dave and I actually worked on a show together where we followed Notre Dame football for Showtime. Dave does this, and this is his life. That’s part of why we love doing this. I mean, it’s that intensity. It’s that turnaround. It’s that decision-making process that makes it a lot of fun. Maybe not fun when you’re in it, like Dave is right now. But when you look back at it, you go, “Man, how did we do that? How did we turn that around?” There’s a secret to the success.
Check: I’ve just got to give kudos to the production team because I think it’s important to understand that these types of people who can do these types of shows don’t grow on trees. They are a rare breed, and there are not that many of them. I often call these shows cliff diving. If you’re going to go cliff diving, you want to make sure you have people around you that are going to have a similar sensibility. Because, if you don’t, it’s problematic.
This group is committed to that 100%, and they have been through some of these wars and understand what it takes. There are little things that you do, also, to hedge. We do a narration session on Thursday. There’ll be hockey games on Thursday night. We might write two versions of a line to cover ourselves for outcomes on Thursday nights. So, when this drops on Friday, it feels as fresh as possible and as current as possible. At some point, you have to pull up your stakes and say, “Okay, we’re delivering the show.” But there are, dare I say, innovative things or options that you can create for yourself to cover all the bases.
Mayer: Also, there are notes and opinions coming in that, sometimes, don’t all add up. My thought on a particular scene could be completely different from ESPN’s thought. So Dave Check, who’s the ultimate decision-maker, [has] to balance these things in real time when [the] need [is] to get this done in real time. Those things make it never simple.
Believe me, I might say, “Hey, by the way, that soundbite, cut it off here.” And then you might get the note from ESPN that says, “By the way, that soundbite, you got any more of that? We need a little more.” It happens all the time, and [we] have to balance that. How do I make everybody happy at the end of the day?
ESPN is one of your broadcast partners beginning next season. How much value does that bring to both sides that this series is exclusive – in the U.S., anyway – to ESPN+?
Mayer: We’ve been doing this show for ESPN for a few years, and ESPN wasn’t our broadcast partner [until recently]. There has been a really cool dynamic this year on my end, having our new partner as the distributor of the show. We’ve been talking, and I’ve been talking to their content team outside of ESPN+ on how they’re using some of this material for other programming, whether it’s In the Crease or SportsCenter. We’ve been trying to get them cuts and miked-up content related to the show but for them to use in other ways. That has been amazing, and it has been a good chance for everybody to get to know each other as well and how we’re going to operate once the season starts next year.
This show is now extremely valuable to [ESPN] and continues to be valuable for us because of, now, our ongoing partnership with ESPN.
NHL’s original docuseries Quest for the Stanley Cup continues Friday, July 2 with a new episode airing on ESPN+ at 6 p.m. ET. Other upcoming episodes of the series will drop on July 9 and July 16.