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Dowbiggin: Count HBO as another fan of surging Leafs

The biggest surprise in the not-very-surprising resurrection of the Winter Classic next Jan. 1 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is how much the story line has changed for Detroit and Toronto since their first date was cancelled. When Red Wings vs. Maple Leafs was initially announced for Jan. 1, 2013, most hockey fans did a Hollywood spit take at the notion of Toronto as a star of the HBO documentary series 24/7 . The Maple Leafs? The listless Leafs were as sexy as CRTC cable carriage regulations.

It was widely agreed (okay, we suggested it) that the Red Wings would be the only attraction for HBO's cameras in the four-part run-up to the game. Detroit in the postseason every year for two decades. Pavel Datsyuk. Henrik Zetterberg. Mike Babcock. Gordie Howe. The octopus.

Toronto? They haven't lifted the Stanley Cup since 1967. The Brian Burke circus. Dion Phaneuf and the goofy Red Bull hat in the dressing room. C'mon, how are they going to put this Duck Dynasty on HBO, home of Boardwalk Empire?

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If the lockout had one saving grace, it was keeping this mismatch out of America's homes.

Yet as we now point the telescope at the 2014 Winter Classic, it's the Leafs (who won 4-3 last night over the Rangers) that are suddenly in the ascendancy. In transition from Nicklas Lidstrom, the Red Wings might miss the 2013 postseason while Toronto seems assured of its first playoff trip since Stephen Harper became PM. The blue team: arrow up. The red team: arrow down.

Think of the possibilities now for 24/7. Joffrey Lupul beaking. Phil Kessel speaking. Randy Carlyle discussing the thermal properties of the brain in concussion awareness. Dave Nonis refusing to trade for Roberto Luongo for the 237th time. All narrated by Liev Schreiber. (Sportsnet has announced it has obtained the rights to 24/7.)

Now that, not Mad Men, is quality TV. Zooby zooby zoo, Maple Leafs.

End of the affair?

The national media once clung to the Winnipeg Jets' NHL return story the way polar bears cling to the dump in Churchill. The scribes have long since departed the MTS Centre. So news that Winnipeg Jets fans are booing their heroes comes as a surprise to the outside world.

Where is the love, Winnipeg? What happened to the honeymoon? To boo or not to boo. That is the question in Winnipeg.

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After last year's party, the illusion that watching a mediocre team is quaint or amusing has now passed in Jets Land. With the playoffs fading in the awful Southwest Division, Jets fans are now wondering what happens next year when the Jets are in with Chicago, St. Louis and Minnesota instead of the Andy Griffith grouping.

"The expectations are up from last year," says Rick Ralph, who hosts pregame and postgame Jets coverage on TSN 1290 in Winnipeg. "That was the homecoming. Their run for the playoff spot in the Southeast got everyone excited. Then they went to being, in Claude Noel's words, 'woefully inconsistent'. So when the fans don't see effort, they boo."

Hulking Dustin Byfuglien is the poster child for hero yesterday/ trade-bait tomorrow in Jets Nation. "They don't always see the effort from Dustin," says Ralph. "At 28, they wonder if he might not bring back a lot in a trade."

Which brings up a dilemma from the Forks to Polo Park. Jets fans have the right to boo. They have the right to abstain from filling the MTS Centre if the play of the Jets is substandard. But they also know only too well there's a price to pay if the small-market squad does not sell out the 15,004-seat arena or its advertising on the boards or broadcasting.

The Jets predecessors in Winnipeg fell victim to the squeeze of a lousy team, a 63-cent Canadian dollar and a fan base that felt it could absent itself when the club faltered. They paid for it for 15 years.

Now there's a split in the fan base about how to react. "People say, 'If I'm paying these high prices, I have a right to boo," notes Ralph, who also hosts a daily show on TSN 1290. "But others say, 'What good is it going to do?' The first group wanted the process of getting better to speed up, to do something at the trade deadline, get a guy who can score...

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"The other group says this was a team that rushed its talent in Atlanta, we can't do that again. They'll need to take time, a couple of years, before they build up. They will eventually spend to the cap."

The future lies in hoping GM Kevin Cheveldayoff can conjure prospects into a contender within five years. One thing for sure in the Peg. The honeymoon is over.

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Admire the passion if not the accuracy of Anaheim Ducks fans. They showed up to boo Justin Schultz last night after he bolted the Ducks to sign with Edmonton. Problem was they kept booing Nick Schultz of the Oilers, not Justin. Lucky for them it wasn't a Sutter or the Anaheimers' heads might have exploded.

The number are in...

TV ratings for Sportsnet's coverage of the Davis Cup are in from the weekend. They're terrific by tennis standards in Canada. So-so by the big-boy standards. Average audience for Sunday's dramatic win by Milos Raonic was 268,000 (2+). Saturday's broadcast of the four-and-a-half hour doubles triumph attracted an average audience of 199,000 viewers. / @dowbboy

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