’24/7′ Ep. 1: Carlyle, Babcock emerge as stars

A behind the scenes look at James Reimer and Jimmy Howard and how they became keepers of the crease as they get set for 24/7, which begins Sunday, December 15 on Sportsnet.

We learned some very important things from the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings’ first installment of 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic:

– Dion Phaneuf’s closet looks like a GQ pornography spread. The moment the camera panned lovingly across his fuchsia-clad ankles and natty bowtie, he became the Henrik Lundqvist of this series.

– Jimmy Howard gets his head in the game by sitting in his stall, eyes closed, pantomiming a rapid series of glove and blocker saves that make him look like Stevie Wonder. It’s excellent.

– There is at least one fan in the state of Florida who cares enough to scream “Red Wings suck!” at Detroit players retreating to the visitors’ dressing room. So there’s something to build on, Panthers!

– NHL players are hand-served tiny gingerbread replicas of their own sweaters, complete with numbers and names, on team charter flights, which is maybe the strongest possible argument in favour of striving for the impossible dream of a pro sports career.

In this first episode, coaches Randy Carlyle and Mike Babcock emerge as the most interesting personalities by a long shot. And that’s more because they turn out to be cartoonish versions of exactly who you think they are than it is due to any surprising revelations.

Carlyle, perfectly, drives a giant white brick of a pickup truck. One of the most entertaining sequences features him vamping like a jovial, obnoxious uncle during breakfast in the players’ lounge, complaining about the peanut butter being swapped for healthier almond butter. Then he gets his bread jammed in the toaster, and when someone finally arrives to fish it out for him, he just goes ahead and eats the charcoaled toast anyway.

There aren’t many combustive Bruce Boudreau-style displays of temper from Carlyle in the 24/7 footage, but his players allude to it with perfect understatement.

“He’s completely honest. Sometimes brutally honest,” Tyler Bozak says with a crooked half-smile. “Some stuff you don’t really want to hear, but it is good that you hear it.”

Babcock, for his part, comes across as articulate, smart and scowlingly intense. The cameras follow him on brooding jogging laps around the Joe Louis concourse—complete with slouchy dad sweat socks—as he plots how to return his team to greatness.

“We haven’t won a Cup here since ’08, so to me, what have you done for us lately?” he confesses in one of the cozy talking-head close-ups. “As a coach, getting on top is one thing; staying on top is another thing—no different for our franchise.”

Juxtaposed against Joffrey Lupul’s reflections on the Cup drought in Toronto, it paints a stark picture of the different roads the two teams have followed to the Big House.

“It seems like kind of a daunting task when someone says you haven’t won the Stanley Cup in 46 years,” Lupul says. “Well, I haven’t won it in the three years I’ve been here—that’s all I can apologize for.”

As he recovers from a Grade 2 groin strain, Lupul shows promise for being one of the more interesting personalities among the Toronto players, and goaltender James Reimer’s wide-open, childlike charm also begs for more screen time.

So far, the Red Wings dressing room seems to be stocked with more engaging personalities than Toronto’s, but the one who looms largest is the guy who never speaks to the camera: Pavel Datsyuk.

Lovingly shot slow-mo footage of Datsyuk charging up the ice in practice, his sweater rippling in the wind of his own speed, is mesmerizing. But the best bits surrounding Datsyuk reveal how the men who share a dressing room with him are in no less awe than the fans who line up for autographs outside the arena.

On a dinner out in Florida before facing the Panthers, a half-dozen Red Wings gush about how their opponents have eyes only for Datsyuk when he’s on the ice, and the best decision in any situation is passing to number 13.

“No, but seriously, is Pavel playing tomorrow?” Brendan Smith asks of the injured centre.

Kyle Quincey practically drools. “He’s so special,” he marvels. “I personally think he’s top two, one in the world.”

Then a waitress appears to tell the players a guy at the end of the bar is buying them a round of Jose Cuervo, which is a weird little sidebar you really want to know more about.

Past seasons of 24/7 suffered a bit for trying too hard to pump up a long-standing blood feud between the teams in question, giving the impression the producers were crafting a hockey documentary for non-fans who didn’t know better.

This time around, they’ve smartly avoided trying too hard to torque this specific match-up. Instead, the first episode nods at story lines grounded in the collective emotion and history of each team’s hometown: bankrupt but proud Hockeytown and Toronto, where the Leafs are a source of endless adoration and neuroticism.

The teams and their cities couldn’t be more different in many ways, and they should provide mirror glimpses of why sports matters, no matter where you live.