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Opening episode of HBO series on Leafs, Red Wings just scratches the surface

Toronto Maple Leafs' Mark Fraser, left, collides with Los Angeles Kings' Jeff Carter during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto, Wednesday December 11, 2013.


When the highlight is Randy Carlyle struggling with a toaster, you know HBO's 24/7 didn't try to blow anyone away with its first episode of the new season.

Instead what we got was introductions – and there were a lot of them.

Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf and his wife, Elisha Cuthbert, got screen time with their puppy, as did Detroit Red Wings vet Daniel Alfredsson and his family of four boys.

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Both coaches, Mike Babcock, and Carlyle, were prominent, as expected.

And then there was hopping around from Jimmy Howard to Joffrey Lupul's groin injury to Stephen Weiss's return to Florida, Phaneuf's suspension and Pavel Datsyuk's return to the lineup.

While the on-ice action remains compelling here given its unique point of view, hopefully Sunday's first episode was all setting the table for more in the next three episodes, as there wasn't a lot of depth to the portraits of the players and coaches involved.

It's barely touched on, for example, that the Leafs are in a deep slump in these games and that that's why the loss to the Los Angeles Kings – despite playing so well – is crushing.

It's also too micro-focused on routine events like Lupul missing two weeks, and we get an anything-but-candid outing with some of the younger Wings that is hard to watch.

But the good of 24/7's first episode was what it generally does well: Getting behind the scenes and into the players' personal lives and personalities.

A few highlights:

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- Phaneuf's closet. The Leafs captain has made an incredible amount of money already in his career, earning a huge contract in Calgary as a very young player, and it's obvious he likes to fork out a lot of it on his outfits. Vests, bowties, flashy suits – we see it all in the dressing room after games. But his shoe selection – shown in a long pan shot of his closet early in the episode – has to be the biggest in the league. He and Lupul, two Edmonton guys, are generally the best dressed Leafs.

- I did like seeing a little of Lupul's off-ice training and rehab, as that's something fans and media never get a look at. He's really had to rebuild his body after all of the serious injuries and take a very diligent approach to fitness, which has included a lot of hours like the ones we see with trainer Anthony Belza (a former minor league enforcer) and skating coach Barb Underhill. Leafs fans – and even sometimes Carlyle – often grumble about Lupul's injuries, but he's become one of the most meticulous players at taking care of his body and that's why he's produced so well in Toronto.

- Your mileage may vary, but to me, the Red Wings scenes in general were dull. Detroit's a fascinating team in a lot of really subtle ways when you walk into that arena and dressing room, but it may be difficult for HBO to depict that in such a short series. With Babcock, in particular, what you see is what you get – his afternoon job gets attention here, for example – and I doubt there'll be any surprises. Maybe they can draw Ken Holland into the mix? His passion for the organization is pretty compelling.

- The toaster. Carlyle has a little bit of Bruce Boudreau in him, and the then Washington Capitals coach stole the show in the first 24/7 in a way that Carlyle may still yet manage. Losing his toast in the new toaster and having Bobby, the team's 6-foot-6 equipment guy, fish it out for him was priceless. Carlyle's often a hard ass with his players and the media, but there's a lighter side I think we'll see, too.

- Phaneuf's suspension could have provided a little drama, but the cameras weren't allowed to cover his phone-in hearing with the league and he wasn't much for conversation when he found out he would sit out. "I got two games," Phaneuf says sternly after practice. "How do you think I feel? But that's the way it is." From being around the team the last several years, it's my opinion that there's more to Phaneuf than we'll get to see in this show. He's likely too guarded and conscious of his image as a tough Scott Stevens type when cameras are around for his goofy side to come out. But we'll see.

- The best dressing room material was from Carlyle. This on Kings rookie goalie Martin Jones was nice, even if we're not sure what it means: "How many rebounds are coming off this guy? Big chest, lots of rebounds, lots of junk out there. Feed the [expletive] chickens here."

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- Then at the end of that game, we see him address the team and deliver exactly the right message given how well Toronto played in a loss to one of the NHL's top teams: "I know it's [expletive] tough. It sucks. But that's what sports is. We have to copy and use this as a starting point for this club."

Suggestions for future episodes:

With Detroit in the West prior to this year, I haven't spent a ton of time around the Wings the last two seasons, so I'll leave the suggestions for them out. (Other than pointing out that Datsyuk needs to be actually saying something.)

But the best personalities on this Leafs team are probably Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, Cody Franson, Mark Fraser and Lupul, so more screen time for them would help. James Reimer's background and personality is so unique that they could do something interesting with him as well.

Part of the issue for HBO will be that many Toronto players are usually very serious and straightforward people. I can't imagine, for example, that they'll get much unexpected out of Jay McClement, Jonathan Bernier, Mason Raymond, Phaneuf, David Clarkson, Nikolai Kulemin, Colton Orr and Carl Gunnarsson.

Although Phil Kessel's a wild card, I imagine we'll see his teammates give him a hard time at some point.

Other aspects about the team that could be interesting include the Kessel and Tyler Bozak BFF dynamic at home, Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly as two young roommates with a lot of time/money to burn in Toronto, Paul Ranger's struggles to adapt to coming back to the NHL after four years away, and what it's like to be someone like Jerry D'Amigo getting promoted from the Marlies to the Leafs.

I also believe that some of the young, single players live at the Ritz Carlton downtown, which might be an interesting lifestyle to look at.

And, of course, more of Carlyle would be good.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More


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