The last thing the Toronto Maple Leafs need is to play in the Winter Classic and thus be featured on HBO’s popular 24/7 documentary series.
The cameras made their first appearance at Leafland on Wednesday. Leafs coach Randy Carlyle is already unhappy about it – though he tries to hide it — and you can’t blame him.
Leafs fans don’t need to know exactly how much Carlyle likes to fish or that Nazem Kadri still secretly goes for late night double-cheeseburgers or that Dion Phaneuf has a soft spot for kids or puppies or the elderly.
Or that when James Reimer gets really, really mad – like, say, when he loses his job to that no-good Jonathan Bernier – he drops F-bombs like Bruce Boudreau.
Sure it’s good for hockey. The prospect of 50,000 or 60,000 Leaf fans filling up half or more of the 110,000 seats at The Big House in Ann Arbour, Michigan for their Jan. 1 date against the Detroit Red Wings for the Winter Classic can’t hurt NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s constant drive to grow the business of hockey.
Sure it’s good for Bettman, the NHL and the other 29 franchises, as they try to bootstrap fallen revenues in wake of the NHL lockout. The Winter Classic has been a cash-cow for the league since it was first played in Buffalo in 2008. This year’s version will set records. In an era when so much revenue is pooled, then shared, it’s a wonder the Leafs don’t play every game outside.
And sure, at one time, it was good for Brian Burke, the former Leafs executive who agreed to make Toronto the first Canadian team to participate in the outdoor game and accompanying behind-the-scenes television programming that builds the hype for the event in the US.
“We don’t want to take a back seat to anybody at an event like this,” Burke said when the Leafs participation was confirmed back in February of 2012. “We’re coming there with the best fan base in pro hockey.”
Which may be so, but who cares?
The Leafs are the Leafs. They are the biggest brand in hockey and need not prove that to anyone. Dion Phaneuf could hate kids, puppies and old people but if he figures out how to move Zdeno Chara from in front of the net in a playoff game he’ll be revered like a Leafs captain should be.
But the last thing the Leafs – finally, tentatively – turning the corner to competitive respectability needs is anything that distracts from the mission of rounding that corner at full speed.
Burke should never have agreed to participate in the first place. At the time he signed up his Leafs were terrible and on their way to missing the playoffs for the seventh straight season.
The 2013 game was cancelled due to the NHL lockout. This year’s version comes on the heels of the Leafs earning a playoff spot over the 48-game sprint that was last season.
It’s too late to pull the plug on the whole thing, but you don’t think Randy Carlyle would like to wish it all away?
It’s unlikely he’ll be the next Bruce Boudreau and become famous for using the f-word as a noun, verb and adjective, often without the benefit of any modifiers. As far as we’re aware he’s not the type to be caught on camera scarfing down ice cream in the morning and chicken wings at night.
But as the HBO cameras made their first appearance at Leafland on Wednesday (they’ll be back in full force in December) Carlyle wasn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm about the prospect of his team being filmed around the clock for a month and being the talk of the hockey world along the way.
“(The players) are going to have to live like I live all the time, with (cameras and microphones) in my face all the time,” Carlyle said. “It will be a challenge to get used to, but I don’t think it’s anything that drastic. Obviously we’re a partner in the NHL and we’re participating.
“We’ll have to deal with it and move forward.”
The problem facing Carlyle is that his team already lives inside a reality TV show that could be called “24/7/365: Playing hockey in Toronto.”
When Burke was in charge he used to call the effect of playing in hockey’s biggest media market “Blue and White disease,” the symptoms being variously a swelled head from all the attention while others displayed shaky hands and dry mouths from the pressure.
Carlyle calls it “white noise” – the constant thrum of attention that teams in perhaps 26 or 27 or 28 other markets simply don’t get.
It’s fine for the Red Wings to be the centerpiece of the Winter Classic and 24/7. They’re a veteran team with a closetful of trophies to their name. Does it really seem possible that Pavel Datsyuk will be thrown off by the whiff of celebrity that could come his way? Will the Red Wings dressing room get jealous if Daniel Alfredsson becomes a storyline?
How about the Leafs?
Trying to help Kadri, 22, develop into a mature professional hockey player who focuses fully on his job rather than the perks of doing it has been a project years in the making for the Toronto brass. His extended apprenticeship with the Marlies and Don Cherry’s robust criticism of his absence from the NHL made him the most famous AHL player in history, arguably.
Now HBO producers will be crawling over the Leafs facility looking for juicy storylines and chances are they just might find one in Kadri, who enjoys the limelight and can’t help but speak his mind on most occasions. That he’s been criticized publicly for his conditioning and has a tendency to tweet off the top of his head only makes him more interesting.
“I don’t know what to expect, to be honest,” said Kadri, who had his best professional season last year and is being depended on to pick up where he left off. “I’ve kept tabs on the other 24/7s, but they haven’t been a distraction at all.”
Kadri was asked who he thought might be the breakout stars in the production, a la whacky (then) Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalof or the aforementioned Boudreau. To his credit he didn’t jump up and down with his hand-up shouting “Me! Me! Me!”
See? He’s maturing.
“There are a couple of characters and I’m sure in a couple of episodes you’ll get to see the fun side of us,” Kadri said.
Reimer says he’s ready.
“Every player really enjoys watching it,” the Leafs incumbent starting goalie said. “It gives the most realistic look at the game. Guys are excited about it, but we’ll see if it’s a distraction.”
Is he okay with all the cameras?
“I might have to clean up my language a bit,” joked Reimer, whose curse words — as far as we know -- run to the fudge and fiddlesticks vein.
There’s no doubt the whole thing could be fun, but the Leafs don’t need fun. They need focus. They need winning. When your team is a season-long, decades-long, minute-by-minute storyline, you don’t need more storylines.
You don’t get the sense from Carlyle that he’s all that interested in fans seeing anything other than a successful, grinding, selfless hockey team on the ice, an approach he believes is best served by chopping down the tall poppies where necessary and keeping as much drama as possible in house.
Unfortunately everyone else in hockey – all of whom stand to profit from the presence of Big Blue (Burke’s descriptor for Leafs Nation) at The Big House and on HBO -- wants exactly the opposite.
“We were asked to participate, the people who make those decisions agreed to be there, so it’s like scheduling. You live with it,” harrumphed Carlyle.
Did he have a say in his team’s participating?
Did he have a comment about their participation, good or bad?
“None,” Carlyle said again.
Unfortunately HBO and the NHL won’t take that for an answer.