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An HBO 24/7 sound crew member turns Toronto Maple Leafs Head Coach Randy Carlyle's microphone on during Leafs practice at the Air Canada Centre. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
An HBO 24/7 sound crew member turns Toronto Maple Leafs Head Coach Randy Carlyle's microphone on during Leafs practice at the Air Canada Centre. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Mirtle: Leafs hope they’re ready for the 24/7 spotlight Add to ...

The Maple Leafs’ bus, plane and dressing room are about to get crowded, and players and coaches used to more daily scrutiny than any in the NHL will find their lives on and off the ice under an unprecedented spotlight.

It’s the price of admission to the Winter Classic, the league’s annual outdoor game that has boosted hockey’s popularity in the U.S. since it launched in 2008.

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And while it’s good for hockey, is it good for the Toronto Maple Leafs, struggling to stay in a playoff spot through a tough December schedule?

HBO is about to zero in on the Leafs, using access that has never been granted by the NHL’s most valuable and talked-about franchise to finally reveal what happens behind the blue-and-white curtains.

Cameramen will sprawl on the dressing room floor, sound guys with boom microphones will hover overhead on the team plane, and producers will eavesdrop on every team meeting and meal.

The American cable TV network’s enormously popular 24/7 series begins filming this year’s show in earnest Wednesday at the Leafs practice facility, beginning a month-long documentary that will lead up to the team’s participation in the Winter Classic.

The first of four episodes focusing on the Leafs and their opponents, the Detroit Red Wings, will be broadcast Dec. 14.

“They’ve already given us a taste of what we’re going to see,” said Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, whose gruff exterior and old-school approach will likely be one key storyline. “It is a little different when you have a camera and a guy sitting on the floor in your team meeting. I gotta hold my profanity to a minimum.”

This will be the third season the series has focused on the NHL’s Winter Classic, but 24/7 is a well-established HBO brand. The show, which has also chronicled boxers before big fights and NASCAR competitions, has won a total of 17 Sports Emmy Awards.

That kind of clout is why the league initially wanted to partner with the network to boost the attention around the Winter Classic – an arrangement that led to the first hockey-themed 24/7 for the 2011 game, where the focal point was the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, and the rivalry between the two franchises’ superstars, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.

That first run won a Sports Emmy for outstanding edited sports special, but more importantly, the Winter Classic itself became the most-watched regular-season NHL game since 1975, helping NBC win the prime-time ratings war in a key victory for a league still trying to improve its small foothold in the U.S. television landscape.

Three months later, the NHL and NBC signed an unprecedented 10-year, $2-billion (U.S.) deal for the national broadcasting rights.

Ever since, participating in the outdoor game and the HBO series have gone hand-in-hand.

Players who have been part of the series in the past have found it equal parts invasive and interesting. The cameras often venture outside of the arena and dressing room, capturing everyday mundane events such as Ovechkin shaving in his underwear and Crosby lounging around his hotel room with a teammate watching hockey highlights.

Because 24/7 is entirely unscripted, hundreds of hours of footage is shot and condensed it into each half-hour show – which can be a tedious process for the players and coaches tasked with the most screen time.

Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk was with the Philadelphia Flyers during their time on the show (for the 2012 Winter Classic) and noticed his teammates mugging for the cameras that were following them each day.

“You kind of roll your eyes at some of the guys,” said van Riemsdyk, the only member of the Leafs to have gone through the experience. “You can definitely see they’re playing a role and trying to get some air time. You know right away when they’re hamming it up.

“I guess that’s what makes the show interesting, when guys come out of their shell. It’s all part of it.”

But being on the show isn’t always enjoyable. The Capitals went on an eight-game losing skid right when filming began three years ago. Their tailspin made for great television but trying times in the dressing room, as then-coach Bruce Boudreau tried to turn things around. For a team that struggled throughout the four weeks, the extra cameras and interview demands were too much.

“It was very intrusive,” Capitals veteran Brooks Laich told Sportsnet last week. “We were the first ones and we didn’t know what we were really getting into. We went through a tough stretch … and then, all of a sudden, they were popping into meetings and disrupting meetings.”

“Well, we were winning and doing pretty well,” said Tyler Kennedy, a member of a Penguins team that had a 25-11-3 record leading into the 2011 Winter Classic. “It’s not too bad – they try not to get in your way. … But I can see how it could be [a distraction]. It’s up to the coaching staff and the leaders in the room to take control and make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Already a team that fields more media requests than any other in the NHL, the Maple Leafs have had to make special arrangements to accommodate HBO’s cameras and staff during the next four weeks. An extra five to 10 spots have been reserved on all of the team’s buses and charter flights, and Toronto’s top players will be scheduled for in-depth interview sessions on an almost-daily basis.

But while the relationship between Canadian-based NHL teams and members of the media can at times be contentious, players have a decidedly different view of what HBO is doing.

“They’re not trying to make you look bad,” van Riemsdyk said. “They’re trying to grow the game and they’re out to make everyone look good, so there’s nothing really to stress out about.”

“The guys are really looking forward to it,” added Pat Park, the Leafs long-time director of media relations. “They’ve been really warm to the whole idea since it got started.”

For his part, Kennedy looks back fondly on the experience. He still sometimes looks up the old shows on YouTube and remembers how excited his family, friends and fans were to see him in a different light.

That kind of reaction is one likely reason why 24/7 has resonated in the United States, as even non-hockey fans have gravitated toward the personal stories behind the players involved. The series gave some a new reason to cheer for a sport they may not have grown up with, which is just as the league intended.

“It’s pretty interesting to see how people view it from the outside,” Kennedy said. “My family loved it. A lot of people in Canada liked it.”

“I thought they did a great job,” van Riemsdyk said. “It’s a great thing for the game.”

Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle

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