This is no time for important company to stop by for a prolonged visit. There are dishes to be done, a penalty kill to fix, defensive lapses to clean up and not nearly enough time for the Toronto Maple Leafs to get their house in order before opening the doors to the hockey world.
Not to mention the fact that there has already been more than enough White Noise—as coach Randy Carlyle often refers to it—during a recent skid that included two losses to last-place Buffalo and a 6-0 white-washing at the hands of Columbus. With HBO’s cameras arriving Wednesday to begin filming the latest installment of the 24/7 all-access series, there are a few people around the Leafs organization who aren’t exactly thrilled about it. “I wouldn’t say it’s high on my list for things to happen in my life,” says Carlyle. “I’m participating because that’s what my job tells me to do. I’ll just leave it at that.”
This is going to be an experience—of that we can be sure. I spoke with a number of players in recent weeks who have previously participated in the series and, while the majority had positive things to say, one sentiment that stood out was how difficult it was to have the cameras around during a losing streak. The Washington Capitals famously suffered through a seven-game slide at the outset of the NHL’s 24/7 debut in 2010 and some of the guys who were there for it believe the streak went on as long as it did because of HBO’s presence. It was even more painful to live than it was to watch. “We weren’t being ourselves in the room,” says centre Matt Hendricks, who now plays for Nashville. “We were afraid that speaking up was going to get too much attention. Guys… weren’t really being themselves and showing the character of men that they are.”
Hendricks likened it to going through your house and taking every door off its hinges. Throw in the kind of tension that builds during any stressful period and add a group of strangers to film the discomfort that arises, and, well, you get the picture. His former Caps teammate Brooks Laich still grimaces at the memory of it all. He said players should be compensated for participating and advised the Leafs and Detroit Red Wings not to do anything that makes them uncomfortable. “For us, we would do our regular media obligations, but then every day you would do 10 or 15 minutes with HBO after,” says Laich. “And they might show maybe 30 seconds in a month’s worth of interviews that you have. I think at some point it’s OK for guys to say ‘no’ but you really have to learn how to balance it and not let it affect you—not let the cameras distract you from anything. But it’s a difficult task because it’s a pretty involved and intrusive process.”
The unique thing about the Leafs is that they live a form of this every day of every season. In fact, some in the organization believe that the heavy media presence around the team already has a negative impact on its performance. Add HBO into the mix and it could be a long December for the Blue and White. A crew from the American cable network made a preliminary visit to Toronto during training camp in September, where it filmed sit-down interviews with players, and has returned to embed itself with the team. The cameras will be granted full access—although the Leafs, Wings and the NHL retain some editorial control over what makes it to air—through the end of the Jan. 1 Winter Classic at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The Toronto players haven’t been apprised of what to expect or advised on how to behave. Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk took part in 24/7 with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011 and doesn’t see any reason why everyone shouldn’t just act like they normally do, although he acknowledges that it’s unlikely to happen. “(HBO is) not out to try to make you look bad,” he says. “They’re trying to grow the game and show behind the scenes. There’s nothing really to stress out about.”
One place stress can be found is in the team’s schedule, especially given its recent performance on the ice. The Leafs play seven of the NHL’s top nine teams in December and will have virtually no easy nights between now and the Winter Classic. Perhaps that fact alone will help the players maintain their focus in the coming weeks. If there’s one thing HBO has highlighted in the previous versions of 24/7, it is the ebbs and flows of the season. The Leafs are feeling that at the moment. However, at least one past participant believes they’ll ultimately be better for the experience. “It’s a cool thing,” says former New York Rangers centre Artem Anisimov. “When the Winter Classic is done, they’re leaving and you feel like you miss the cameras. There’s nobody around.”