The Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings are just weeks away from facing off in this year’s Winter Classic in front of 107,000 fans at the Big House, and that’s great. The league’s annual New Year’s Day game has become one of the cooler traditions in sports, even sucking in casual viewers thanks to the sheer spectacle of seeing hockey played in the elements in front of massive crowds.1
1. It’s cool right now, at least. This year, the NHL scheduled six outdoor games, which will probably mean we’ll all be sick of the concept within a year.
But hockey fans know that if the Classic is getting close, something even better is right around the corner: 24/7.
Yes, this week we’ll finally get to enjoy the return of HBO’s behind-the-scenes reality series, which chronicles the event’s two teams in the month leading up to the game. This year’s four-episode season begins Saturday and runs until January 4.
In the three years since its debut, 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic has become essential viewing for any hockey fan.2 And from Mike Green’s scooter to Bruce Boudreau’s facial sauce to Ilya being Ilya, it has proven to be the type of show that can create indelible memories.
2. The 2010 series featured the Penguins and Capitals, while the 2011 edition had the Rangers and Flyers. There was no season last year because of the lockout.
So who’ll be this year’s breakthrough star? It’s hard to say, since if history’s any guide, it may end up being someone you’d never expect. But here are the 12 players and personalities who I think are the most likely to steal the show.
Datsyuk appears to be the current odds-on favorite to emerge as the star. While he has never seemed like an especially outgoing character, teammates say he’s funny and engaging once you get to know him. He’s already one of the league’s most popular players — or at least one of its least-hated — so 24/7 could take him to another level.
And there’s a good chance it will; Datsyuk is the perfect candidate to be a reality TV breakout star. He has been an unlikely success story, going undrafted twice before the Wings finally nabbed him with the 171st pick in 1998. He overcame a language and culture barrier to slowly emerge as a star over his first three seasons, then erupted after the 2005 lockout to become one of the league’s top scorers. He’s a two-way player (he has won three Selkes as best defensive forward) and one of the cleanest competitors (he won the Lady Byng as most gentlemanly player3 four straight times).
3. Yes, this is a real NHL award. Yes, hockey fans have mixed feelings about this.
Even his fellow players love him. He was the first overall pick in the most recent All-Star draft, and every player poll basically turns into the “We love Datsyuk” show. If that’s not enough, he’s also a hell of a dancer. And he tweets pictures of cats.
He has basically become the heir to Teemu Selanne’s “player who nobody says anything bad about ever” throne, and unless he spends every moment of his screen time casually forearming baby otters in the throat, he’s going to be the star of the series.
Prediction: HBO’s high-tech cameras capture Datsyuk’s stickhandling in super slow motion, and nine months later, NHL fans are naming their newborn babies “Pavel Jr.”
Other than Datsyuk, this is just about the easiest call of them all. Lupul was pretty much born for this. He can be funny, as demonstrated by his Twitter account. He has a variety of interests, as evidenced by his various forays into the fashion world. And he’s not exactly shy in front of a camera, based on his recent experience as a nude model.4
4. No, really.
The only downside is that Lupul has been hurt recently, which could cut into his camera time in the first episode or two. Of course, the extra down time may have just given him a chance to work on even more material. Besides, if he’s healthy enough to get to the makeup chair, I can’t see him missing out on the opportunity.
So Lupul’s pretty much a lock for a starring role. In fact, once HBO producers get a glimpse of his Zoolander gaze, the only question may be whether they even bother letting any other Leafs on the show.
Prediction: Leafs CEO Tim Leiweke can’t figure out why HBO keeps spelling “Jeffrey” wrong.
The “angry coach who swears a lot” has been an archetypal 24/7 character thanks to Boudreau’s legendary performance from the first season and John Tortorella’s solid follow-up a year later. Which coach will earn the coveted role this year? My money’s on Red Wings coach Mike Babcock.5
5. He’s also coach of Team Canada in Sochi.
For one thing, he looks the part. Babcock is just a flat-out angry-looking man. This is a guy who can chill out with the Stanley Cup while wearing a wet suit and still look terrifying; imagine what he must be like after the Wings blow a two-goal lead. If you’re looking for someone to have a meltdown and challenge Boudreau’s F-bomb record, Babcock seems like a perfect candidate.
Maybe too perfect, come to think of it. He’s aware of how the series can treat coach tirades, and he has let it be known that he wants no part of it.
Prediction: Babcock’s attempt to make it through the whole series without dropping an F-bomb fails after he notices cameras catching him trying to buy a fake Canadian passport for Jimmy Howard.
Babcock’s counterpart in Toronto has also expressed some wariness of the HBO spotlight. And Carlyle is apparently prepared to take it one step further, having already started showing up at press conferences with fake laryngitis. This is a coach who clearly has no desire to be a recurring character on the show.
But will he be able to help himself? Remember, the Leafs have already endured a disappointing November, and their December schedule is brutal. It’s not out of the question that the HBO cameras could capture the story of a team plummeting out of the playoff race. Would a full-scale Leafs implosion be enough to set Carlyle off? Fingers crossed.
At the very least, here’s hoping that the cameras are able to get footage of Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner sneaking into the coach’s office every morning and pooping in his filing cabinet, since it would be nice to finally have an explanation for why Carlyle hates him so much.
Prediction: After realizing that Carlyle has no desire to be especially interesting, HBO producers just swap in leftover footage of look-alike Boudreau from 2011 and assume nobody will notice.
I live in Ottawa, where Alfredsson spent his entire career before leaving for Detroit this summer, so I can let you in on a little secret: He’s boring. Like, paint-drying dull. Grass-growing dull. Loser-point-era-NHL-third-period-when-both-teams-have-blatantly-stopped-trying-so-they-can-get-to-overtime dull.
That’s not to say he’s a boring person away from the rink — I’m told he’s a nice enough guy. But he’s one of those players who quickly realized that life in the NHL is much easier if you never say anything interesting. He spent virtually his entire time in Ottawa staring dead-eyed into the middle distance while spewing nonthreatening clichés. Usually while furiously pedaling on a stationary bicycle. It’s a Senators thing; don’t ask.
So why is he on the list? Well, Maple Leaf fans still hate him, so there’s a good chance he’s getting booed by more than 50,000 of them during the Classic. That should be fun.
But more importantly, Alfredsson has shown signs of a personality shift over the past few months. His stunning heel turn against the Senators franchise, which he foreshadowed during the playoffs6 and then executed perfectly once free agency opened, was a thing of beauty. Suddenly, a guy who’d merely shown hints of an evil side over the years seemed like he’d entered the “Screw it, I’ve only got one year left and I don’t care what people think of me anymore” phase of his career.
When asked if the Senators could beat the Penguins, he shocked reporters by answering “Probably not.”
He has been on his best behavior since the season started, so I might be getting my hopes up. But the slight chance that 24/7 will capture the continuing evolution of Evil Alfie is worth keeping an eye on.
Prediction: Alfredsson disappoints everyone by barely appearing on camera at all, though you could swear you see him in the background shadows during that one scene in which Darcy Tucker mysteriously “trips” headfirst into a brick wall right before the alumni game.
As a player, Reimer can be divisive. Many fans feel he’s a legitimate no. 1 goalie who deserves to be the Leafs’ undisputed starter. Others disagree, insisting that a shaky glove hand and questionable rebound control make him too risky to trust with the job. The Toronto front office seems to fall into the latter group, trading for Jonathan Bernier in the offseason and giving him the majority of the starts so far.7
7. A move I criticized at the time, though both guys have been excellent.
But there’s one thing that just about everyone seems to agree on: Reimer is the nicest person in the history of the world. He doesn’t swear, he’s relentlessly positive in interviews, and he consistently comes across as genuinely humble and thankful to be in the NHL.
And he’s always smiling, which is amazing because, we remind you, this is a Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender. These days, that’s just about the worst job in the world, and yet Reimer continues to happily grin and bear it. He even smiles when he talks about sticking an opponent in the kidneys. It’s ridiculous. I’m in a better mood just from writing about him.
Also, his wife may throw some shade at Elisha Cuthbert.
Prediction: If he gets more than a few minutes of screen time in any single episode, he’s going to have HBO’s entire audience dancing around like they’re in that Pharrell video.
You’d probably expect to find Jimmy Howard in this spot, since he’s the Wings’ starting goalie and has already been featured in one of the show’s preview videos. And Howard would be a fine choice, since he’s a personable guy who should come across well on camera.
But there’s a good chance Howard’s backup, Gustavsson, ends up stealing the show. For one thing, 24/7 has always had a bit of a thing for European goaltenders. And Gustavsson is one of the few players on either roster who has played for the other team, having been a Maple Leaf for the first three years of his career.
But beyond that, Winter Classic teams have developed an odd habit of starting their backup goalies. And since the Leafs platoon means they don’t really have a backup and Ty Conklin is somehow not involved in this game (yet),8 that leaves Gustavsson with a decent shot at getting the nod. Might as well give him screen time in the lead-up.
8. Conklin was a journeyman backup, but still found himself starting each of the NHL’s first three regular-season outdoor games, for three different teams.
Prediction: Gustavsson gets the start and earns a shutout against his former team. Literally every Maple Leaf fan is 100 percent convinced this is happening, by the way.
Phaneuf isn’t exactly Mr. Personality, which is probably a good thing because he’s the Maple Leafs captain. Like Mats Sundin and Wendel Clark before him, Phaneuf has learned how to make himself available to Toronto’s media hordes without ever saying anything especially newsworthy. There’s little reason to think that will change when it’s an HBO camera in his face instead of a tape recorder.
So why is he on the list? Because this week, Phaneuf was suspended two games for boarding Boston’s Kevan Miller. And that makes him the first player to ever earn a suspension during 24/7 filming.
Is it too much to hope that we may get a behind-the-scenes look at the disciplinary process? Phaneuf’s hearing with the Department of Player Safety was done over the phone instead of in person,9 but it could still make for some intriguing television. The league has never shed much light on how the system works, but a few scenes of Phaneuf preparing his defense would be fascinating, and anything on how discipline czar Brendan Shanahan arrives at a decision would be even better.
9. In-person hearings are reserved for more serious infractions.
Chances are we won’t see much of the top secret process. But we can hope.
Prediction: After a tough week, a frustrated Shanahan volunteers to play for the Red Wings alumni squad, then spends the entire game delivering increasingly violent head shots to both teams while yelling “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED” at horrified fans.
Weiss signed a $24.5 million contract with Detroit in the offseason and has been one of the biggest free-agency busts of the season so far, so he may seem like an unlikely candidate for a starring role in 24/7.10 But maybe he breaks out of his slump, which would make for an interesting story. Or maybe he doesn’t, in which case his continuing frustration could add a nice element of human drama.
10. As of this week, he’s also injured.
But really, I’m just hoping the producers take the opportunity to mess with him. I’m picturing scenes like this:
HBO narrator: Meanwhile, Stephen Weiss continues to work hard in practice, hoping against hope that he can convince the coaches to let him make his season debut.
Weiss: Uh, I’ve played 26 games.
HBO narrator: With the possibility of his first goal looming, tension is high …
Weiss: Come on, I scored already. It was back in October, but still …
HBO narrator: But first, there is the thorny matter of figuring out which hand he shoots with, and then teaching him how to skate …
Weiss: I hate you.
I know, I know, you think Kessel is the most boring player on earth, but hear me out. I think he could end up being the best thing about 24/7.
Sure, he has spent much of his career appearing shy and reclusive, even to the point of seeming painfully awkward at times. But ever since last year’s playoffs, when he shook off a “can’t score against the Bruins”11 reputation with a four-goal performance, Kessel has started to come out of his shell. He has been better with the media — not great, probably not even good, but better — and he’s had a bit of swagger on the ice. He used to be the Leafs’ shrinking violet, but this year he’s hacking ankles and bloodying noses.
His old team, which he left under bad circumstances in 2009 and which has tormented him ever since.
Mix in a sheepish grin and a ridiculous Wisconsin accent, and Kessel has a real shat at being the stah of the show, hey?
And even if he doesn’t, we should at least get some good shots of Kessel and his ever-present roommate and BFF Tyler Bozak playing video games together, which should be fun. I bet Bozak puts them on the same line whenever they play NHL 14, and then Kessel waits for him to go to the bathroom before sneaking into the options menu and replacing him with Nazem Kadri.
Prediction: The first time one of Kessel’s interviews doesn’t seem to be going well, David Clarkson randomly charges in in an attempt to save him.
Aside from Alfredsson, Bertuzzi is the oldest player on either team. He’s a grizzled veteran who’s still chasing his first Stanley Cup after almost two decades in the league. And he’s a good guy with a great sense of humor, at least according to his teammates.
He’s also the guy who is best known for doing this, an incident that almost a decade later is still tied up in litigation. That presents a tricky situation for HBO. Does it make him the villain? Does it try to present him as a redemption story? Does it dive into it at all, given how much the NHL would surely prefer HBO to leave it alone?
It’s a dilemma, and it could be kind of fascinating to see which way HBO goes with it.
Prediction: The producers try really, really hard to get you to like him. You still don’t.
Burke may well be the ideal 24/7 character. He’s opinionated, insightful, articulate, and unflinchingly honest. He gives the best sound bites in the business and has never met a camera he didn’t like. He’s just about perfect for a show like this. What’s not to like?
Oh, right. The fact that he doesn’t work for the Maple Leafs anymore.
Tragically, the lockout-mandated cancellation of the 2013 edition of 24/7 ended up costing the HBO cameras a chance to see Burke in action as Maple Leafs GM. The team’s new ownership caught everyone off guard when it fired him in January, just days after an agreement to end the lockout had been announced.
But come on, does anyone really think a minor detail like that is going to stop Burke from making an appearance or two? You can’t picture him “dropping by” his old pal Dave Nonis’s office to shoot the breeze or return an old pair of hedge clippers, then acting surprised to see all the HBO cameras before reluctantly agreeing to sit down for a quick interview that ends up lasting for seven hours?
Failing that, Burke’s new team, the Calgary Flames, just happens to make a conveniently timed trip to Detroit next week. Come on, HBO. Give us what we want.
Prediction: During the now traditional “Team Christmas Party” episode, all the Maple Leaf players’ kids keep warily asking why Santa Claus has his necktie undone.