TORONTO – Steve Mayer’s excitement over the early, top-secret footage of All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs is palpable through the phone.
Ever alert, Mayer is careful not to spoil the goods. But the co-executive producer is confident the personalities of the Leafs’ marquee players — Joe Thornton, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, et al. — will have some competition from the club’s decision-makers when it comes to must-stream TV.
Safe to say, the unprecedented access to head coach Sheldon Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas will compel Leafs Nation to subscribe to Amazon Prime Video next fall. Prepare to binge.
“I saw a one scene between the two of them that was really good. And when I say ‘really good,’ I mean making a scene like they're actors. Just super compelling. Our fans are going to get a real inside look at the organization. And it’s first class from everything I've seen so far,” says Mayer, the NHL’s chief content officer and senior executive vice president.
“Our goal is to do such an amazing show that gets such an amazing response that the Leafs are the first of many of our teams that end up doing this series. We're pretty psyched.
“We want people talking about us.”
Mayer, an Emmy winner nine times over, was hired by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to think big, to make a splash, to broaden the NHL’s appeal, to turn sports junkies into hockey fans.
In addition to overseeing the league’s tentpole outdoor events and creating slick in-house TV productions like Road to the Winter Classic and Quest for the Stanley Cup, Mayer has long been seeking for hockey to get some play in the juggernaut that is the digital streaming space.
He’s been knocking on the doors of the Prime Videos for years and knows firsthand that only one of every 30 or 40 pitches actually becomes a production.
“You better have a thick skin. There are very few yeses. The majority are nos,” says Mayer, who was thrilled when Amazon came back to him with a green light for 2021. “We can't put a dollar value on how important these shows are to the league.
“We always feel like our players and our coaches are so likable, and these are the kinds of shows that really expose that. I don’t think it's about money here as much as it is about growing the game through another cool vehicle.”
But why were the Maple Leafs, specifically, selected to continue the docuseries’ momentum gained through featuring institutions like the Dallas Cowboys, Michigan Wolverines, New Zealand All Blacks and Manchester City?
James Farrell, Amazon Studios’ vice-president of local originals, is searching to grow the outlet’s business in Canada. All seven North Division clubs were considered, but there’s just something about the Maple Leafs’ brand, particularly this season, that makes for compelling drama.
The torture of a 54-year Stanley Cup drought, the vaulted expectations internally and externally to get over the hump, the relationship between the team and the city — it all adds up to what Farrell describes as “a perfect place” to start the partnership.
“Hockey is obviously a religion in Canada, and Toronto is one of the country’s great and historic hockey towns,” Farrell says. “Personally, and as a former Torontonian, I have seen the Leafs’ diehard fans up close, and I share their excitement for a series offering unparalleled access during this high-stakes season.
“The team has a lot to prove, and our goal is to peel back the layers and dive into what goes on behind the closed doors, and craft an intimate, access-driven series that’s never been seen before for the NHL. Hopefully this will be the first of more NHL teams to come for future seasons of our All or Nothing franchise.”
Even with Amazon and the NHL keen to fling open the closed doors of the Maple Leafs, the club itself had to agree to this unprecedented access. When the league films its Winter Classic or playoff docs, camera crews hang around for a couple months tops.
For this project, Amazon will be rolling from January until the wheels fall off — or the Cup is hoisted.
Meetings needed to be held with club president Brendan Shanahan, Dubas, Keefe, all the way through to and including the players.
The last thing anyone wanted was for the players to feel obliged to play up to an audience or to feel like their camaraderie could be invaded by an outside force.
“There’s a little convincing that has to be done, and a lot of comfort that needs to be realized on both ends,” Mayer explains. “And they were sold.”
Keefe says the average fan might not realize that cameras are often around the team anyway, filming for club or league marketing clips that get posted to YouTube or social media.
But this is extra.
Amazon’s crew installed a wide number of small fixed-rig robotic cameras in key facilities, offices and dressing rooms that allows its producers to capture fly-on-the-wall footage without disrupting the Leafs’ inner sanctums. That footage will be blended with the hand-held video captured by the three camerapeople tucked inside Toronto’s bubble.
“For the most part, it's been really as though they’ve just blended it in,” Keefe says. “We obviously want it to be a very special (season) ... and to have it documented and a chance for our fans and people around the world to get an opportunity to see our organization behind the scenes and get exposure to the sport is a great thing.”
Adds captain John Tavares: “We just try to be who we are. That's not changed, whether a camera is there or not. So far, it's been very innovative. They're really not really in our face.”
And, yes, the Amazon/NHL employees embedded in Leafland are “one trillion per cent” following COVID-19 protocol, Mayer assures.
“It’s not easy to do a show in this environment,” Mayer says. “Part of the beauty of this is getting it done under these conditions.”
Toronto’s head physician, Dr. Noah Forman, works directly with the three camerapeople on the ground. They undergo daily testing.
“The fellas are in here right now. They've been awesome. I mean, it's like they're not even here, honestly. I don't think anybody's really found them as a distraction,” Matthews smiles over a Zoom call.
“As a kid growing up, I loved watching all those behind-the-scenes (shows) like HBO 24/7. It's always exciting for fans to see the behind-the-scenes stuff. The guys been great, and I think it'll turn out to be pretty cool.”
We wonder: Where is the line between a juicy peek behind the curtain and footage that might not be fit for public consumption?
In past NHL docs, Mayer says the stuff that ends up on the cutting-room floor falls into two categories. Most often it’s scenes that expose confidential team strategy and could surrender competitive advantage: Hey, please don't show that play scribbled on the whiteboard.
“And occasionally a scene where a coach has really gone after a player. And that's pretty uncomfortable. And both have kinda said, ‘Can we not show that?’ ” Mayer says. “But that's so far and few between. It's really unbelievable how much is allowed to stay in.”
Amazon’s narrative of the Leafs won’t be written in real time but after the fact, and the series has yet to lock in its narrator.
Episode 1 should air roughly a month in advance of 2021-22’s yet-to-be-announced opening night.
And whether the Maple Leafs thrive or flounder in the all-Canadian division, be it fairy tale or tragedy, the story’s climax is bound to be dramatic.
“Wow. What a year to do the show,” Mayer says. “There’s a lot of ways this thing can go.”
He is speaking of Toronto’s season, but the same could be said for the NHL’s bold new partnership with a streaming giant.
“They know that what we're going to end up doing will be really high-end,” Mayer says.
“And it is our hope, it is our prayer, it is our goal to have it win awards and be recognized, not only in the hockey world but in the sports world. And, frankly, in the entertainment world.”