There’s a cruel and comical irony to the decision by Amazon Prime to feature the Toronto Maple Leafs in the latest edition of its sports documentary series, All or Nothing.
The cruel part is obvious: Last spring, the Leafs suffered one of their most ignominious implosions in the first round of the 2020-21 playoffs, taking a commanding 3-1 lead over the Montreal Canadiens before being struck by an epic case of the yips – every eye twitch and puck bobble of which were duly recorded for humiliating posterity by a battery of Amazon’s cameras.
And the comical? Well, Prime is a movie and TV streaming service owned by a US$2-trillion logistics behemoth that is so bloody-minded and efficient that it can deliver anything in the globe to your door within 24 hours, yet one of the company’s enviable algorithms apparently determined it would be a smart move to align the brand with a professional hockey team that has taken 54 years (and counting) to bring home an oversized tin cup.
‘All or Nothing’ series offers unprecedented peek behind Maple Leafs’ curtain
Still, critics who don’t believe anyone would spend four hours wallowing in the memory of a season that ended in a spectacular derailment have apparently never seen people slow down and gape as they drive past the scene of an accident. We’re suckers for real-life disasters, all the better to remind ourselves we’re still alive. I mean, c’mon: James Cameron’s Titanic did US$2.2-billion at the worldwide box office and no spoiler alerts were necessary because everybody already knew how the story ended.
The titanic hubris of those who built that allegedly unsinkable ship may come to mind when you mull the new five-part series, which began streaming on Friday. Being featured in All or Nothing isn’t quite the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, but enough teams have participated in the series and ended up with – well, nothing – that you may wonder why the Leafs would tempt fate.
It all started so promisingly. “Our goal was to give fans and viewers a peek behind the curtain, to see the inner workings of an NHL team,” said Corey Russell, the executive vice-president of Cream Films, the Toronto production company that made the series under contract to Amazon Prime Video and NHL Original Productions. “We had access to stuff that no one’s had access to before.”
Russell, who produced the series, bleeds blue-and-white: He remembers going to Maple Leaf Gardens when he was about eight or nine years old, in the late 1970s, to watch his uncle, Walt McKechnie, play for the Leafs.
So it was a bit of a thrill for him to be in the backrooms as Kyle Dubas, the Leafs’ general manager, negotiated with other GMs at the trade deadline, or counselled coach Sheldon Keefe (All or Nothing’s F-bombing star) on how to handle an errant comment to the media made by Auston Matthews, or to see both execs tap their inner Ted Lasso to try to help lost soul Alex Galchenyuk find his way.
Russell and his team had “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of hours of footage to choose from, shot by a cameraman embedded with the team, as well as a network of cameras operated remotely by crew who weren’t in the Leafs’ COVID “bubble.” Shooting the footage was just the first step: They didn’t really know what story they were telling until the Canadiens manhandled the Leafs out of the playoffs on the last day of May. They spent the summer slamming it together, with half a dozen editors and five story producers shaping the material.
The result is a slick and swift package, carried along by pitch-perfect narration from lifelong/long-suffering Leafs fan Will Arnett.
Russell admits he’d rather have told a different story. “As a producer, when you see what happens in Game 7, you realize you’ve got a very emotional kind of story beat,” he said. “It’s hard to separate my Leafs fandom from my producing, but I still would have rather told the story and been there at the end with the team raising the Stanley Cup. I think that would have been just as compelling, if not more compelling.”
Hard disagree. Leo Tolstoy observed that all happy families are alike. So are Stanley Cup-winning teams, as we’re reminded every spring when the cliché montages play across our TV screens: bearded, bearish warriors throwing their gloves in the air, falling exhausted to the ice together like drunken undergrads, raising Lord Stanley’s token like a spoil of war. But, to quote Anna Karenina, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That’s what makes for must-watch TV.
Still, there were obstacles for Russell and his crew to overcome.
“When they lost in Game 7, the social-media outcry was so strong and negative, I think we were all sort of worried that Leafs fans might repel from this series, and might not want to watch it, because they’d be like: ‘Okay, we’re not gonna’ relive this,’” he admits. “But I think we did a good job of reframing the season and hopefully people will want to watch, in the sense that they get to see all the positive stuff that happened in the season, too. Yes, the ending was terrible and disappointing. But the other stuff that happened during the season was encouraging and exciting, and should be recognized as well. We’re hoping fans will tune in for that.”
No need to hope. On Friday morning, #AllOrNothing was trending on Twitter. Because of course it was. The show is the ne plus ultra Leafs experience: You already know it ends cataclysmically – heck, you watched it unfold in real time – and yet you still can’t help but put yourself through it again. Because there’s also, in that certainty, a sense of community, of recognizing that others are going through the same thing. Humans have been making art out of our pain for millennia, turning it into stories so that we can understand it, gain control over it, and keep going. It’s just what we do.
And if, after watching All or Nothing, your disaster cravings haven’t been fully satisfied, you can always watch Titanic: Amazon Prime will happily rent it to you for $4.99. If you want to experience a calamity on repeat, you can even buy the movie, for $19.99.
Or, I suppose, just wait for another Leafs season.