For the third time, the documentary crew at HBO has trained its cameras on two NHL teams as they prepare to face off outdoors in the Winter Classic game on New Year's Day.
This year, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings get the behind-the-scenes treatment in 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic.
After following the teams for a week, the first episode of the four-part series premiered this weekend—on HBO on Saturday in the USA and, for the first time, on Sportsnet in Canada on Sunday (with the really bad words muted out).
The documentary is a first-class example of sports filmmaking thanks to the exquisite camera work, powerful use of music and the somber intonations of narrator Liev Schreiber. The storytelling, however, could use a jump-start. As the series begins, the Leafs and Wings are both mid-pack teams who are playing uninspired hockey.
Here's what we've learned from Episode 1:
Familiarity Breeds Caution
The first two seasons of NHL 24/7 were fuelled by their focus on larger-than-life personalities like Bruce Boudreau, John Tortorella and Ilya Bryzgalov. Now armed with the knowledge of how others have been portrayed in the past, Leafs and Wings players and coaches are treading cautiously in these early days.
Viewers were granted just one real show of emotion—and profanity: Joffrey Lupul's on-ice attack of the Los Angeles Kings' Slava Voynov after he received an unwelcome stick to the face during their December 11 game.
Off the ice, confessionals veered towards the cliches we hear from players during their day-to-day media activities, while insider events like the Maple Leafs' Christmas party were presented as fun for the whole family. They couldn't get anything substantial out of the bubble-hockey game between Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri?
The cameras also missed out on some key moments of the week. They weren't allowed in the room for the phone hearing regarding Dion Phaneuf's suspension for boarding Kevan Miller, and they only caught Jimmy Howard being helped off the ice after injuring his groin during a Red Wings practice in Tampa Bay.
The Breakout Star is a Player to be Named Later
Behind-the-scenes moments with the players and coaches are the centerpiece of 24/7, but Episode 1 was decidedly mild. A look into Phaneuf's well-stocked closet, a visit with his actress wife Elisha Cuthbert and a ride to the rink in his Bentley were highlights. Watching Daniel Alfredsson teach hockey to his boys in an empty Joe Louis Arena also stood out.
But Lupul's rehab from a groin injury, the Red Wings' dinner crew grabbing some grub in Florida and a storyline about Stephen Weiss' return to play against his old team lacked sizzle. They won't demand repeat viewings anytime soon.
24/7 runs for three more weeks. There's still time for a top-line star or storyline to emerge.
In this promo, HBO seems to tacitly acknowledge that some of these players are more interesting when they don't utter a word.
Babcock Has His Own Way of Working
Detroit's bench boss Mike Babcock is a no-nonsense guy, and one of the best in the game. His confessionals were standard boilerplate, but we did find out that Babcock likes to use the concourse of Joe Louis Arena as a private running track after games. We should all be so lucky.
Babcock is also on the lookout for new team-building tricks he can use to motivate his group.
Randy Carlyle still calls his newer players like Mason Raymond and Jonathan Bernier by their full names when he announces his starting lineups, but Babcock is now handing off the duties to a different player every game. Emerging Slovak rookie Tomas Tatar was allowed to show a little bit of his personality when he handled the announcement for Detroit's December 7 game against Florida with a big smile and a healthy dose of ribbing toward his teammates.