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Road to the Winter Classic writer Aaron Cohen seeks fresh angles

Highly decorated TV writer Aaron Cohen tries to capture the brutal reality of hockey in fresh ways in his Road to the Winter Classic documentary episodes.

“In any walk of life, the very best in their craft look outside their realms whenever they can — for perspective, novel experiences, reminders, perhaps, that the world doesn’t turn on the results of a single night on the ice.” — narrator Bill Camp, Epix’s Road to the NHL Winter Classic, Episode 2.

NEW YORK — The lights dimmed inside the windowless screening room of the SoHo office building earlier this month on a Monday afternoon, otherwise known as “Hump Day” among the three men present. Before the narration was added, the footage was mixed, and the 56-minute 27-second episode was released at 10 p.m. on the following Wednesday night, this group needed to watch the rough cut. In the back, coordinating producer Steve Stern slumped onto a couch as the footage played. Nearby, executive producer Ross Greenburg jotted down notes for adjustments to be made later. And up front, scrolling through the script on his MacBook laptop, was series writer Aaron Cohen, the voice behind the voice of the all-access show, the man with 20 Emmy Awards to his name, universally known around the television business as one of the best.

This particular gig functions at times like a tightrope walk, Cohen says. Unlike, for instance, reading this article, consuming a Road to the NHL Winter Classic episode (U.S. broadcast schedule here; in Canada on Sportsnet and RDS) — or an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, or the opening monologue for the Olympic Games on NBC, which Cohen has also handled during his decorated career— entails listening and watching at the same time. This makes writing for television a different beast. The images are already on the screen. No need to explain what everyone already sees. “It’s a scary little ledger and you have to make sure you pull it back just a bit,” Greenburg says. “We never want to make the viewer gag.”

Which is why, eight years after Greenburg debuted his calling card, HBO’s “24/7,” initially following the Oscar De La Hoya–Floyd Mayweather boxing bout and later expanded to include hockey’s annual New Years’ Day game, he continues to work with Cohen, a 37-year-old Long Island native and father of two. Greenburg calls him, without intent to exaggerate, “like the Tom Brady of his craft.” And then he adds, “There’s no Peyton Manning right behind him. It’s as if he’s on a perch by himself.”

After graduating from Harvard in 2000, Cohen returned to New York, where he had grown up as a fan of the Mets, Jets, and Knicks. He cracked sports television as a production assistant for Bob Costas’ talk show, On the Record and later produced on a freelance basis with HBO and NBC, dabbling in some documentary writing along the way. When “24/7” was born and Greenburg assembled the production team, he asked Cohen to join with the sole responsibility of focusing on the script. “The head producer was focusing on the whole car,” Cohen likes to say, “and I was just focusing on the wheels.”

By now, woven into the genre that Greenburg calls “docu-reality,” Cohen’s process has become routine. Each four-episode series contains a similar rhythm and themes often carry over — episodes filmed around Christmas, for instance, usually go heavy on family scenes — but Cohen is conscious about striking new tones with new subjects. (Whereas this year’s show, featuring the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens, contained the obvious element of an Original Six rivalry, Cohen had no such luxury last year when the Chicago Blackhawks met the Washington Capitals.) He often writes on the fly here in a studio while four editing rooms buzz at once, all of them culling footage relayed by the camera crews embedded with the Bruins and Canadiens. Cohen wasn’t much of a hockey fan as a child, but he found himself drawn to the unique aspects of the sport. For instance, he loved how fond hockey players seemed of screaming, “F---ing right.”

“I don’t want to overstate it, but you try to come it a little like an alien, or a Martian who landed on Earth,” Cohen says. “What’s interesting about this game? What captures you visually? We’re going to show you hockey in a different way, in a way you haven’t seen before. To that end, when I’m looking at it through this lens, what engages me, what fascinates me?

“I don't know if that impacts anything more than one line I’d write, but the way we show things, the coarseness and the hyper-reality of the injuries, the stitches and the blood pouring out, the camera guys do such a good job of capturing it and making it look cinematic, and it is. You get swept up in that and you want to pay tribute to it.”

As the rough cut played, with some portions still to be added, Cohen barely glanced up from his laptop. He was too busy tweaking tone or sentence structure, too familiar with the sequences by now. After the mix is completed overnight and Stern makes his edits at 6 a.m. the next morning, Cohen and Camp, the narrator who replaced Liev Schreiber when the show switched from HBO to Epix last year, will work together to lay down the final track. Usually, Camp comes into studio, but for this episode he recorded from Ft. Myers as Cohen offered notes, paragraph by paragraph, 88 in all. “He’s leading the charge because it’s his words,” Greenburg says.

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Five, the Brooklyn Dodgers, Lawrence Taylor, Arnold Palmer, the Dream Team, Magic Johnson, and Joy Johnson, the oldest woman to complete the New York City marathon. He almost never watches his work, for reasons familiar to any writer. 

“It’s painful,” he says. “I’m a pretty low-key guy. I don’t like to make people unhappy. Last night we watched the close down, it was great, I’m totally stoked, but if I happen to catch the show tonight, I’d find something, so I’d rather just move on. I know it’s pretty much where everybody wants it. It’s a 99, but that 1 percent, it’s going to bother you.”

And so, as the lights flicked back on and the rough cut ended, Cohen shut his laptop and stood up. The episode’s closing segment was unfinished, the narration currently slapped together by editing-room producers. “I have a ton of writing things to tweak, but I like the way it flowed,” Cohen said, pausing as he left the room. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be better.”