December 18 2016 07:00AM
The NHL is back at it with their outdoor games and series to show the road the teams must traverse literally and metaphorically before New Year’s Day. Let’s take a look at what we got out of episode one and the Maple Leafs.
HBO set the bar pretty high with their first outing of The Road to the Winter Classic. The show has since changed hands and airs on EPIX and is available on the NHL site. But the thing is - it is still a hollow copy. As always the show begins with the gravelly narration about how games are important and games are essential and meaningful in life. By this point, we have heard this from the beginning so many times it is almost a parody.
What is desperately missing from The Road To series is a sense of fun. Everything is so tight and constricted it is hard to find moments of the unexpected. It is all very stock and orchestrated. I am fully aware that any form of a reality or docu-series is constructed but there still is something to be said from the enjoyment that comes out it. See: episode one of Mariah’s World that opens with the return of her crazed alter ego Bianca who we haven’t seen since the music video for Heartbreaker. The last moment I can recall from these series as being genuinely surprising was the embarrassing comedy of errors of Randy Carlyle struggling to work a toaster.
So much of this is the bones of 24/7 and there hasn’t been much innovation. The structure and visuals are just retreads at this point - opening with views of Toronto through a grimy blue haze but the contrast of the fresh rookies on the team getting their sticks ready with intense concentration. The narrative meanders but finds the time to remind the dear viewers of the saga of Leafs failures and the near five-decade drought - complete with grainy film footage in case you wanted a technological reminder of how long it has been since Toronto has touched the Stanley Cup. We could do with a different approach to framing of the story we already know, for instance: the rookies on the team are living in a post-Spice Girls society and don’t remember the downfall of the day Geri left the group.
The one interesting pieces this series can build around is Mike Babcock. In fact, it might be the only piece the Leafs will have this time through. The man makes for good television. In the past, he has clashed in these situations and tossed out the crew in a fit of frustration. But this time around he’s back in good form. He rattles the camera crew and jokes that they are in for a terrible month of having to deal with him but still welcomes them aboard.
Babcock is both measured and blunt when speaking which is why he is such a comforting presence as coach for the Leafs. He’s been around long enough he could just rattle off the usual stock quotes in his sleep but the passion in which he talks about the focus on building up the young players is nice to hear. He is honest in their weak spots and emphasizes how they’re all learning together to correct that and it will take time and hard work. My summary is cliche ridden but I assure you his bites don’t sound store bought. It is this sense of commanding ownership paired with his belief that everything will be okay and I can’t help but have faith in him. If anything, this episode made me want an app that just occasionally pushed notifications to me with Coach Babcock saying encouraging things - foul mouthed and all.
We shift to circle up with Tyler Bozak who is a veteran piece on the team. Bozak spoke about how Babcock expects him to take a leadership position and be a good role model to the newer players and help them get their bearings. The one curious missing piece from this bit was Bozak expressing interest or enthusiasm to be in this role as a mentor. Instead, it felt like it was just Bozak blandly reciting the words Babcock has told him multiple times. It would have been nice if Bozak in that segment could have shown that this is something he is glad to take on and discussing examples of what that responsibility means. In the end - we cut to Bozak at home and meet his tiny tot Kanon and he talks about how much he’s changed now that he’s a father. For someone who is supposed to be so charismatic, he is incredibly stiff and walled off.
The Leafs and the sport as a whole should hope more compelling stories emerge. What made HBO’s take so refreshing is it honestly was engaging even if you disliked a team or player in it. Even if you had been watching the hockey for ages, you still walked away from that having seen new layers peeled back. I know that there were people who didn’t have any investment in the sport and I asked if they had watched 24/7 and after viewing it they would come back and tell me something like: “I can see why you like this sport.” “I had no idea that’s what hockey was about.” “I’m really interested in the hockey now.”
I am not entirely convinced the NHL has a long-term plan to sustain the next generation of fans which is a big problem in a sport that is prone to lockouts. This should be the moment for the league to get it together and show from top to bottom this is a sport worth caring about. It needs to actually stand on its own and not be tied up with a rumbly narrator treating it like an afterschool special. Frankly, I’d prefer a more frantic and fun approach if it gave me something that hasn’t been sanitized to the point of being bland.
This show gets stuck in the mire of a lot of prestige television does. Great sound and visuals, but a story that ultimately is just treading water and not moving forward. This series is pretty slick for being turned around so quickly and perhaps that’s why it continues to be so formulaic with the slow motion travel montages and quick glimpses of players in suits smirking with headphones on. 24/7 showed us the league is made up of actual players who exist beyond the ice but The Road To keeps them squarely in the penalty box.