General manager Steve Tambellini discusses draft picks with scouts at the team's headquarters.
Locker room cameras capture strategies before games and raw emotions following a heartbreaking loss or exhilarating win.
Rookies Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall return home to discover grocery items spoiled during a two-week road trip.
Those are just a few examples why Oil Change, a documentary series featuring the Edmonton Oilers, has a cult-like following. Hockey fans are hooked on unprecedented, in-depth, behind-the-scenes footage.
In its third season, Oil Change is similar to the NFL's Hard Knocks. There's one major difference. Aquila Productions is granted complete access the entire hockey season.
“The big thing is fans get access like they've never had before,” said Aquila president Don Metz. “This is not a promotion for the team. It has to have a lot of grit to it. Our crew goes everywhere, even flies on the team charter plane. That creates compelling television.”
Oil Change's third season began Tuesday on Sportsnet in Canada. The first episode will debut in the U.S. on Saturday on the NHL Network. The series has a worldwide audience, although roughly one show a month is aired.
“We had over a million hours of downloads that first year on the Internet,” Metz said. “People were downloading the entire show. It blew everyone's mind.”
This season's first episode has a distinct Oklahoma City flavor. The franchise's young stars, cornerstone players in the rebuilding process, spent three months with the Barons during the NHL lockout.
Aquila's crew shot Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Justin Schultz, Eberle and Hall riding bicycles they purchased at Wal-Mart. One shot shows the Fab Four pedaling around Bricktown to eat at a restaurant.
“It was such a unique situation,” said Mike Beley, camera man/director of the Oklahoma City crew. “For them to get to play together was such a huge asset for the organization. We had to get that on tape. Each year, we're checking on the farm team. This was different with NHL-star-caliber players.”
Metz's sales pitch to the Oilers organization in 2010 was crews would follow a tradition-rich franchise that's fallen on hard times, an organization trying to return to being a Stanley Cup contender.
“At first, there was some hesitation,” Tambellini said. “You're giving access to a lot of sensitive areas that coaches, players and management sometimes aren't comfortable with.”
A one-hour pilot telecast centered around the Oilers debating whether to select Hall with the No. 1 overall pick. The first season featured seven one-hour shows. Last season, there were six episodes. This year, because of the lockout, there will be five.
Locker room scenes are the backbone of each episode. Players and coaches wear microphones on the bench.
What makes the series unique is viewers get a sense of what it's like to be part of a professional sports team with stories like Eberle and Hall learning how to wash clothes their rookie season.
“There's always been a curtain (between teams and the media),” Beley said. “It's such a sacred thing. You want to respect their space. It's been really neat what they've allowed us to do.”
Metz owns three studios in Edmonton and one in Toronto. He's produced documentaries ranging from Canadian Olympic hockey teams to lacrosse and football. Most of his documentaries feature hockey.
Metz, who has been associated with the Oilers since 1979, has been on the broadcast team since 1994. The relationship was vital. But to film such an extensive project, Metz requested unparalleled access.
“We wanted to make sure our stuff would be very unique and of a very high production level,” Metz said. “For 150 days, we have high definition crews that are literally with the team. We're given first access to everything.”
Oil Change was a smashing hit. On March 16 of the first season, 85,000 hours of downloads over a 16-hour period crashed Aquila's system.
“It just kept building and building,” Metz said. “What's been surprising is a lot of our feedback has come from the United States because it airs over and over again on the NHL Network.”
When the series was in its beginning stages, Tambellini attended an American Hockey League game in Rockford, Ill. A fan shouted his name from the concourse. After talking with the fan, Tambellini realized he no longer would live in anonymity like most NHL general managers.
“That really opened my eyes,” Tambellini said. “What's been surprising is when you get into the South, in non-traditional markets, you find out how many people watch it. It's all of North America. And they're not just watching, they're watching intently.”
Oil Change has developed a much larger following than Metz envisioned. Hockey fans live vicariously through million dollar athletes and highly scrutinized coaches and general managers.
“People are interested in every aspect of the team, including stories about these guys away from the ice, their families,” said senior producer Gord Redel. “They know we're going to be authentic. Some players are sent down. Some players suffer injuries. If they're on a losing streak, we're going to talk about that.”
The Oilers endured several losing streaks during Oil Change's first two seasons of filming. Edmonton is a franchise that's won five Stanley Cups. But the Oilers have lost enough games recently that they've owned the No. 1 overall pick the past three seasons.
“We were showing how these guys deal with that,” Metz said. “The last thing these guys want is to have their wounds shown. But we're very careful with that. It's not easy when you're losing a lot of games. But the cameras show all that.
“There's a lot of conflict. These players want to win. But we don't believe we're a negative influence at all. There are a lot of stories to tell. We work with the team to a degree to make sure what we air is OK, but we pretty much have free reign.”
Oklahoma City coach Todd Nelson discovered that first season when he made a cameo appearance on Oil Change. Episodes air in Canada a few days before the NHL Network. Nelson's phone is jammed with text messages from friends and relatives.
“It's great for the hockey fan to see what it's like on the farm,” Nelson said. “Last year, they followed us in the playoffs. It's done really well and done very tastefully. They've won awards. It's great exposure for everybody. People enjoy seeing what it's like behind the scenes.”
OIL CHANGE'S FUTURE
Metz said he hopes the series continues until 2016, the year the Oilers start playing in a new downtown arena that was recently approved by the Edmonton city council.
“You would like to think they keep building this team until you win the Cup,” Metz said. “After the team finishes 30th, 30th and 29th it's time that everyone — the management, players and fans — wants to see win-loss improvement. That's the focus this year. Can they get to the playoffs?”
The series has been so successful that six NHL teams have approached Metz to see if it's possible to produce something similar. Most are shocked to discover the manpower needed.
“They're blown away by the level of production required,” Metz said. “Embedding camera crews for 150 days, original music, high-end graphics, research, writing and editing, there's a lot that goes into it.”
Metz raises all the money for Oil Change from broadcast licensing fees and film grants from Canadian federal and provincial programs.
NHL teams in the U.S. would have to pay the bill with sponsors or a team network.
“This doesn't cost the Oilers a penny,” Metz said. “What they give us is full access. We have cameras mounted in the locker room that turn 360 degrees. They forget about us, which is why you get some amazing content.”
Aquila's producers sort through hundreds of hours of footage before splitting each episode into seven “acts.”
“For every hundred minutes we shoot, we might use only one minute,” Metz said. “You do that because you need those money shots.”
One money shot in this year's first episode is of Nail Yakupov skating for the first time at Rexall Place during training camp.
Yakupov was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. The 19-year-old Russian forward is shown starring at banners of Wayne Gretzky, other Oiler Hall of Famers and Stanley Cup titles hanging from the rafters.
“His jaw dropped for 20 or 30 seconds,” Metz said. “We got two different angles. It's one of those magical shots. You have to be there 24/7 to capture that stuff.”
Because of Gretzky's career, the Oilers always had a bandwagon following. Oil Change has attracted additional fans that have invested emotionally the past two seasons.
“We believe it's an interesting story of how we're growing a franchise in a city that's fanatical about hockey,” Tambellini said. “People get some sense of a professional sports team and all the hard work from a coaching staff's preparation, sacrifices by players and planning within the organization.
“There are a lot of people in play, some worldwide, whether it's the NHL, NFL or Major League Baseball. We're just letting people see how we're trying to grow and what we're trying to build. People want to follow the progress. It's exciting for our entire organization.”