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Arrival of HBO's '24/7' cameras turns up spotlight on struggling Leafs

TORONTO - When "24/7: Road to the Winter Classic" debuts later this month, viewers might find out what caused Phil Kessel to abruptly leave a practice because HBO cameras followed him to the locker-room.

What no one will see is what Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer and Carlyle were talking about on the ice, only because coach Randy Carlyle turned off his microphone. And no one will hear what Mark Fraser would've yelled at James van Riemsdyk during a drill because the defenceman bit his tongue instead of making a joke.

This is the new reality for the struggling Leafs as HBO's "24/7" cameras began filming them at practice Wednesday. Mired in a five-game losing streak, they'll try to turn things around with the spotlight brighter than ever.

"Guys are just going to kind of be themselves, but maybe in the back of their minds they'll want to provide a little bit more entertainment, too, and that might calm us down or just make us a little more at ease," Fraser said. "It's definitely not a panic situation for us right now. But we definitely want to be in a comfortable environment to get back to the hockey we want to play."

From injuries to a lack of discipline and a rough stretch on the penalty kill, the Leafs are dealing with a bevy of problems. They're also in the midst of a brutal segment of the schedule that continues Thursday when the Dallas Stars visit Air Canada Centre.

The documentation of a team in a tailspin is probably isn't what former general manager Brian Burke wanted when he signed on for the Leafs to take part in the all-access program. And even though captain Dion Phaneuf praised the production staff for staying out of the way in the infancy of this project, he knows there's nowhere to hide.

"They're around and they're in most meetings, so you're going to see a lot of stuff that would never get outside of this room because of the access they have," Phaneuf said. "When they say 24/7 access, that's what they got."

Carlyle has made little secret of the fact that he's not a big fan of letting cameras have such unfettered access to his team. But he understands it's part of what goes into playing in the Winter Classic next month against the Detroit Red Wings.

The veteran NHL coach hasn't instructed players on what to say and not say with the cameras rolling. Just like when dealing with members of the media, he wants them to be fair and honest when possible but also recognizes that secrets are harder to keep with more invasive access.

"There are certain things that we do believe have to remain in house," Carlyle said. "But this is a little different experience. When you have people inside your room living with you it's obviously different. It's going to be challenging through the next month, that's for sure."

Players pointed to watching their language as the biggest challenge. But previous incarnations of the show, including the Emmy Award-winning first version with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, featured plenty of cursing.

That's just bleeping hockey sometimes. But Leafs centre Nazem Kadri will be conscious of what he says.

"Obviously you've got to watch it a little bit," he said. "Be yourself, just really watch your language and just do what you always do."

What the Leafs have been doing of late is losing. They last won Nov. 23 against the Capitals and have struggled to put together a 60-minute performance since.

Carlyle and his coaching staff have tried to do is lighten the mood in recent weeks.

"What we've tried to do is remain as positive as we possibly can," Carlyle said. "There's enough pressure being applied when you don't have success in the NHL from outside sources."

Beyond the regular media attention, HBO represents another outside source of pressure.

"It's something that you've got to be used to," Phaneuf said. "And you've got to be able to work with because they're not going anywhere and they're in our room for the next month."

Over the next month, viewers will catch a glimpse of players' lives away from the rink, too. Kadri's looking forward to seeing what the show features about Kessel.

"Phil, he likes to kind of keep to himself a little bit, but I know the HBO cameras are going to kind of want to get on him a little bit and have him in the show. And he's a big part of this team, so why not?" Kadri said. "I think he should embrace it a little bit."

Fraser wondered if Kessel might remain subdued with the cameras on him, but hopes the shy superstar opens up a bit. As for the rest of the Leafs, Fraser thinks reporters already have a good idea of personalities in the locker-room, however he allowed for the possibility that HBO will get to see different aspects of players.

"Some guys will definitely enjoy maybe more of a social aspect of this career than others," he said. "So you might find out who goes out and does interesting cool things and who just sits on the couch and plays video games."

Phaneuf hopes his ping-pong rivalry with Kessel makes an appearance on the show, but beyond that he doesn't know what will make it on air.

"I can't tell you what you're going to see because it's a day-to-day basis that they cover everything from when you're at the rink to when you're at home, and you're going to see a lot of stuff that you wouldn't see on a normal basis," Phaneuf said.

Whatever makes it on to the show, which debuts Dec. 14 on HBO in the United States and then Dec. 15 on Rogers Sportsnet in Canada, Phaneuf said he respects the process. He has watched "24/7" in the past and appreciates the end result.

"I think that they do a really good job of showing the fans what happens behind doors," he said. "You can see that they get the little things that a fan would never see, and I think that's great for our fan base to see it."

Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.

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