The 2014 Winter Classic. (Getty Images)
Point and shoot. When your hockey documentary series pits two Original Six franchises against each other before 105,491 fans outdoors in a snowstorm, that's all you need to do.Episode rating: 4/5 Warning: Some clips in this post contain coarse language and/or graphic imagery. Point and shoot. When your hockey documentary series pits two Original Six franchises against each other before 105,491 fans outdoors in a snowstorm, that's all you need to do. Aim the camera on the action and press record. The stuff writes itself. And that's why the finale of 24/7 Red Wings/Maple Leafs goes off without a hitch. It lets us take in the sights and sounds in the moments before, during and after last week's Winter Classic. It's hard to screw up this kind of episode, but I shouldn't sell HBO’s effort short. Aside from the hockey action, it also finds its sweet spot and extracts the most candid dialogue from the players all season (episode 2 was raw beauty, but belonged to coaches Mike Babcock and Randy Carlyle). The Wings and Leafs seem more comfortable on camera at this point. Maybe that's because, ironically enough, they are more uncomfortable than teams previously featured and relax knowing the experience is almost over. Early on, we learn of Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg's imminent return from injury and get some interesting insight from Babcock and Dan Cleary on how good of a captain Hank is. Babcock says that, even if Zetterberg comes back rusty, he's such a model player that he rubs off on the others. Cleary calls him the league's best captain (in Z's first year wearing the 'C,' no less). It's neat to hear such high praise for the lead-by-example type. I always think of those personas more as figureheads than captains, yet 'Z' is loved. And it doesn't feel like mere lip service, as it's not like HBO needs Zetterberg compliments to make the episode work. On the flip side, we get a real sense of Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf's approach. He's the star of this episode, more likable than ever imagined and on camera a lot. Signing his new contract, passionately playing ping pong, stopping mid-Classic to appreciate the game's beauty, he seems to be enjoying life as a Leaf. And he's a fun guy to mic up, highly vocal with the refs and even trying to tattle on Wings as they cheat on faceoffs. Seeing the dads accompany the Red Wings on the road is a highlight. How about that Goran Zetterberg? He strikes me as different from the other dads, maybe on outcast among the others because of a language barrier. So it's only half surprising to see him cracking beers in the visitors dressing room with the Detroit coaching staff after a game. I presume he smuggled the cold ones in. Classic Goran. Finally, finally we get to know Phil Kessel a little bit. It’s fitting that he only seems comfortable with his running mate/chauffeur Tyler Bozak by his side. And while the Kessel footage is an extension of what we’ve scene in each episode – nothing but Kessel playing games like a little kid, be they ping-pong or pool – we do get the sense his teammates like him. The best exchange between chums Bozak and Kessel comes not as they give us a tour of their apartment, but after Kessel scores against Carolina on a bank shot: Kessel: That’s so lucky! Bozak: Who gives a s---? Paying homage to previous seasons, the finale also brings us carnage. Dan Cleary loses 10 – 10! – teeth on one puck to the face. It’s one thing to lose your chiclets, but feeling them crumble like a stale cookie in your mouth must be…not fun. We also see David Clarkson’s elbow graphically oozing blood and getting stitched up before he declares himself ready to return to a game. It’s a scene that would make Marty Scorsese proud. I can't seem to find a clip of it, but maybe that's for the best. I won’t go into the Winter Classic itself in great detail, as we all saw it. I’ll just say HBO does a fantastic job capturing the elemental beauty of the snow-covered game. I felt cold even watching the recapturing of it. The episode winds down with what John-Michael Liles might call a gut punch and what HBO might call a happy accident. After he’s traded to Carolina right before the Classic begins, he’s caught on camera saying goodbye to his now-former Leaf teammates after the game. It’s awkward, but the best moment is Jerry D’Amigo’s sincere hug. It tells you a lot about Liles that D'Amigo, a Leaf who’s spent most of the season with the Toronto Marlies has the most warmth for Liles, who was buried in the AHL to open 2013-14. If a prospect respects him that much, Liles clearly acted like a true professional during his demotion. And so ends another season of 24/7. Worthwhile viewing? Absolutely, and we slowly but surely got to know some of the Red Wings and Leafs. That said, this season leaves us with more questions than answers. Most importantly, did Ilya Bryzgalov change 24/7 forever with his season 2 performance? My colleague Ken Campbell mused that “no one wants to be the next Bryzgalov” and that we’ll never see players open up the same way on 24/7 again. That certainly seemed to be the players’ approach throughout season 3. While it was still plenty of fun, it was easily the weakest edition to date. Odds and ends:
- Life in the NHL: Babcock essentially designating Riley Sheahan for the AHL with a quick swipe of a whiteboard. “15, he’s in the minors.”
- Kessel during the Carolina game: “You think that little rat could beat me up?” When matched against Nathan Gerbe, all 5-foot-5 of him, even Phil Kessel is a bully.
- Doesn’t Ken Holland just look Russian to you? Is there a 3.1 percent chance he’s a spy?
- Good on Jimmy Howard (and 24/7) for staring his horrible performance against Nashville in the face. It’s not surprising from a player I respect. I’ve interviewed Howard once and he was probably the friendliest, most candid goalie I’ve ever spoken to.
- After four episodes, Carlyle just never gets comfortable. He has at least one cringeworthy line per week, and calling out his own “BUUURN!” when joking with Kessel takes the cake.
- The utter lack of Pavel Datsyuk using his vocal cords is season 3's biggest disappointment, in my opinion.