Randy Carlyle and a toaster oven were the stars of this year's premiere of "24/7 Red Wings/Maple Leafs: Road to the NHL Winter Classic."
Amid plenty of reminders of Toronto's recent losing ways, the coach provided some comic relief with the HBO cameras there to document his struggle with making breakfast.
"I've got a toast stuck in the toaster. It is. It is stuck in the toaster," Carlyle said, smiling and laughing at the improbability of the situation. "You guys did this on purpose."
It was one of few moments that seemed spontaneous, during the show's first episode that took care of introducing the main story lines from the Leafs' playoff collapse to Daniel Alfredsson's addition to the Detroit Red Wings. Joffrey Lupul's rehab from a groin injury, Dion Phaneuf's disciplinary proceedings for his hit on Kevan Miller and Pavel Datsyuk's return from a concussion also got plenty of air time.
HBO's cinematography made everything on the ice look beautiful, from the hockey games themselves to Phaneuf skating with wife Elisha Cuthbert and Alfredsson playing with his sons on the ice at Joe Louis Arena. And not surprisingly Liev Schreiber's narration set the tone for the entire series, which began with children playing hockey and the idea of what they want to do when they grow up.
"If no one believed in the impossible, there would be nothing left to dream about," Schreiber said.
That dream, in this case, is focused on the players who made it to the NHL and now play for the Leafs and Red Wings. Detroit's first mention is about bankruptcy and how "proud but struggling U.S. city" would rather emphasize what it has: a hockey team with a winning tradition.
On the Leafs' side, it didn't take long to invoke 1967.
"They love hockey in Detroit, though across the border there's an entire country that treasures the game as its national pastime," Schreiber said. "In that country's largest city, for generations the home team has been at once adored and agonized over. Nearly half a century has passed since the Stanley Cup was last raised in Toronto. But disappointments seem only to fortify their fan base and their faith in what is to come."
In the present, Phaneuf was the first Leafs player featured. Close-ups of his closet turned into shots of him getting dressed and kissing his wife and dog goodbye before driving to Air Canada Centre.
Before the day ended, the Leafs had a loss to the Bruins and Phaneuf knew he was facing a hearing with the NHL for his hit from behind on Boston defenceman Kevin Millar.
During the presentation of that game, a flashback to last spring set the stage for Toronto's season. Every goal the Bruins scored in their remarkable Game 7 comeback victory was shown, along with some reaction several months later from the key players involved.
Goaltender James Reimer was "shocked." Nazem Kadri called blowing a three-goal, third-period lead "surreal."
"It's been difficult, believe me," Carlyle said. "It was like a stake in our heart. We did make the playoffs and we had captured the emotion of the city, and that was great. It was great for our players to experience that, but we failed.
"But what we tried to carry on into this season is that we weren't going to sit back and worry about what happened last year. We can't change that. It's over, it's gone. There's some new players, a new group of players and this is a new life for our group."
Alfredsson's new life was the biggest part of the Red Wings' side of the show. He was shown putting up a Christmas tree with the help of his children and skating with his three oldest at Joe Louis Arena.
The former Senators captain talked about his decision to leave Ottawa after 17 seasons and how it was harder on his wife, Bibi, and sons Hugo, Loui, Fenix and William, than on him because joining a new team automatically gave him 20 new friends.
"I think we were all so super excited when we got here, and then we realized that this is it, we're staying here and this is what we're doing," Bibi Alfredsson said. "And then they started missing their friends and the regular life that they had. So it's been a little bit challenging, but overall I think it's been good."
Throughout the show, life on the ice isn't good for the Leafs, shown losing to the Bruins and the Los Angeles Kings, or Red Wings, shown losing twice to the lowly Florida Panthers.
Nor was it good for Lupul, who spends part of the episode discussing and rehabilitating a groin strain that kept him out two weeks. Viewers got a bit of a behind-the-scenes look at his strength exercises and, later on, heard Lupul cursing out Kings defenceman Slava Voynov after a fight.
"You (bleep) piece of (bleep)," Lupul yelled. "You're gonna (bleeping) sit down."
Lupul's thoughts on the Leafs' league-worst Stanley Cup drought were much more measured. Though he feels bad for fans who have endured it, the 30-year-old winger said it doesn't have anything to do with current players or staff.
"It seems like kind of a daunting task when someone says you haven't won the Stanley Cup in 46 years," Lupul said. "Well, I haven't won it in the three years since I've been here. That's all I can apologize for."
Leafs players made no apologies for relaxing during a joint family Christmas party with the Marlies at Ricoh Coliseum, a break from the usual routine of games and practices. It's there that viewers got to see David Clarkson's wife and daughter and hear about the Toronto boy returning home.
It's also there that star Phil Kessel, whom teammates expected to see plenty of during "24/7," had his only speaking part of the episode while playing bubble hockey with Kadri and James van Riemsdyk.
"You only get so many chances in this game," said Kessel, who leads the team with 17 goals and 32 points.
One thing that happened in the previous incarnations of this show was that the coaches became focal points. The contrasting styles of Carlyle and Babcock started to take shape, like when the Red Wings coach had Tomas Tatar ad-lib the starting lineup while the Leafs' coach read off his starters in quick, no-nonsense fashion.
Babcock's philosophy, demeanour and choice of exercise—running laps around the concourse at Joe Louis Arena—seem to overshadow anything going on with the Red Wings. Babcock, who will coach Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics, can be heard imploring his players during a game, "C'mon boys, we got way more here, eh?"
There wasn't much more from a scene at a South Florida restaurant involving Justin Abdelkader, Kyle Quincey, Darren Helm, Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser, which included discussion about Datsyuk's return and magnificent play that seemed forced to help the narrative along.
Nothing was forced about Carlyle's coaching beliefs that Schreiber called "simple and timeless."
"I think my coaching style is based upon firm but fair," Carlyle said. "I believe that there has to be structure created. I think it's the coach's responsibility to make sure that his team is disciplined in the areas, A) to the rules that are out there in the game and to the team concepts. If you're not prepared to hold them accountable to that, then you're lacking in your responsibility."
Carlyle was responsible for the most memorable segment of the show, including his light-hearted complaint about breakfast—"They force you into the healthy stuff. No more peanut butter, it's almond butter"—and his toaster difficulties.
More serious content on Leafs general manager Dave Nonis and assistant GM Dave Poulin preparing for Phaneuf's disciplinary hearing and a look at Stephen Weiss's return to Florida followed, along with uncertainty about Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard's knee injury. Howard is out two to four weeks with a sprained MCL, and the show wrapped up with both teams experiencing losses.
Trying to put four defeats in context, Schreiber painted the situation as a couple of learning experiences.
"Painful as defeat can be, there's no more powerful way to reinforce togetherness," he said. "Frustrating as it may seem, there's no more valuable way for re-calibrating tactics.
"Adversity will continue to shadow them. Simply playing though, it might well be the most important thing these teams can do."
The Leafs snapped a three-game skid by beating the Chicago Blackhawks 7-3 Saturday night. The Red Wings lost 4-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins, their fourth loss in a row.
The second episode airs on Rogers Sportsnet in Canada Dec. 22, a day after the Red Wings visit the Leafs.
—Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.
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