By Ryan Stieg, AllPuck.com
The Winter Classic took place a couple weeks ago, but the NHL’s showcase event this season was something to remember. I would say the Toronto-Detroit game ranks up there with the first Winter Classic with Pittsburgh-Buffalo. The atmosphere was perfect; the snowflakes falling from the skies provided a great setting.
Nobody sums up the majesty of the Winter Classic better than HBO’s “24/7,” which concluded its season with two good episodes. The first (third overall) began with both teams picking up wins. The Maple Leafs notched their fifth win in 15 games in a shootout with Phoenix, after which head coach Randy Carlyle emphasizes the importance of staying angry and physical. On the other side, the Red Wings knock off Calgary thanks to a hat trick from Daniel Alfredsson, who recorded his 700th assist.
From there, we get to meet Brendan Smith’s parents. Smith talks about what it was like growing up with his brother Reilly, who plays for Boston; he loved the Leafs as a kid and his brother rooted for the Wings. This is a good segue to the upcoming contest in Toronto between the two teams. Detroit’s focus is to execute on the power play. During a morning skate, Leafs netminder Jonathan Bernier participates even though he will play backup to James Reimer for the third straight game, his longest bench stretch of the season. The Wings then have a mandatory morning skate, which Babcock isn’t keen on. The good thing for Detroit is that injured players such as Henrik Zetterberg and goalie Jimmy Howard are all practicing in full pads. There’s also a lighthearted moment where Wings players ask Siri on an iPhone who the “Magic Man” is. Sure enough, Siri responds that it is Pavel Datsyuk, who doubles over in laughter on the training table.
We then get a look at David Clarkson, who returns to the Leafs’ lineup. Clarkson has been frustrated with his two-goal, four-assists season and explains his ritual of riding the subway to the Air Canada Centre. It reminds him of when he was a kid and rode the rails through town. As he strolls through the station, fans don’t even notice him, which Clarkson appreciates. After that, HBO brings us into the NHL situation room where replays are reviewed. We got a look at this during Flyers-Rangers, but since this game is in Toronto, it’s a little more poignant.
The Leafs fans boo longtime Ottawa Senator Alfredsson as he steps onto the ice, then erupt when Toronto scores first. Two minutes later, Datsyuk lights the lamp and shuts the crowd up. Detroit then burns Reimer for two more goals on only 12 shots in the opening frame. Carlyle pulls Reimer and puts in Bernier. Reimer is not happy and glares at his coach as the period begins.
Dion Phaneuf gets the Leafs back on the board and almost ties it later, but Wings goalie Jonas Gustavsson makes a sprawling save. Joffrey Lupul then ties it shortly later on the man-advantage. In the third period, Detroit’s antagonist Todd Bertuzzi fires a puck at Bernier’s water bottle and earns the ire of Clarkson, who proceeds to deck Bertuzzi and fire obscenities. Shortly after, Clarkson appears to score his 100th career goal in a scramble around the net. The goal is in dispute, so we get to see Toronto’s review team in action. A quick look at the play confirms the goal and Toronto takes a 4-3 lead. Bernier also stops a Datsyuk breakaway, but then Tomas Tatar sneaks the puck past him a few seconds later. Bertuzzi and Clarkson continue their tiff as the period goes on, which at this point is a little ridiculous. Overtime is scoreless and although Bernier has had a great game, Detroit gets goals from Alfredsson and Datsyuk in the shootout to clinch a 5-4 win. This is the Wings’ first shootout win since the previous February.
After the close contest, we’re treated to a pair of polar opposite postscripts: Phaneuf attempts to renegotiate his contract with Toronto, while Wings defender Danny Dekeyser shows us his home game ritual of eating spaghetti and meatballs, and discusses how happy he is being a Michigan native and playing in Detroit. As good as the action is during games, the behind-the-scenes stuff makes the series compelling. (Especially when 8-figure contracts are at stake.)
Toronto heads to the Big Apple to take on the Broadway Blueshirts. James van Riemsdyk will have family attending the game. Over in the Motor City, the Wings take on the other New York franchise, the Islanders.
Detroit fans toss an octopus onto the ice, which is one of the league’s most bizarre and entertaining rituals. Even though their fans are ready to go, the Wings are not. They get blitzed for three goals in the opening frame. The Leafs are also having trouble putting the puck in the net at Madison Square Garden, but they’ve been able to keep the Rangers off the board too through two periods. New York scores first, but Nazem Kadri nets the equalizer. Toronto reviews it and on the replay, we can see Kadri just tuck it past the pipe. The Leafs head to their third straight shootout, but fall again. As disappointing as their loss is, Detroit’s is downright brutal. Fans are disgusted with their team’s lack of energy and boo the Wings as they leave the ice.
While the other players interact with their families over Christmas, Lupul stays in New York and shows off his fashion sense through Manhattan’s high class stores. He also buys a sweater for his mom to wear at the Winter Classic. Back in Detroit, we get to see Alfredsson’s family and how they celebrate a Swedish Christmas. It’s not much different than an American one except that it involves meatballs, spiced wine and Santa Claus knocking on the front door instead of attempting to climb down the chimney. Not surprisingly, the kids get hockey sticks as gifts. van Riemsdyk plays a pick-up game in his hometown. As he prepares, my favorite holiday song — “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney — echoes in the background; my wife shudders across the room.
The episode ends with Zetterberg skating on his backyard pond in suburban Detroit. He reflects on his boyhood days of outdoor skating in Sweden. He has been cleared to return in time for the Classic, and he hopes that snow will fall at the Big House. As we find out later, he gets his wish.
As the Classic approaches, the city of Detroit goes all-out with outdoor games. The Ontario Hockey League, the AHL, and college hockey all participate in games at the Detroit Tigers’ Comerica Park. I was especially looking forward to the Great Lakes Invitational, which involved the four major college teams in Michigan. Surprisingly, the most talented team, the Michigan Wolverines, lost both contests, and it was Dekeyser’s school, Western Michigan, who won the tournament. There is also a Toronto-Detroit alumni game, which apparently, was fun to watch.
The final episode of 24/7 begins with the sewing of the teams’ jerseys for the big game. It’s cool watching them get put together. Narrator Liev Schreiber also makes sure to hype up the event’s importance even though it really doesn’t need it. Wings head coach Mike Babcock discusses the changes to his lineup as some of his players return from injury, most importantly Zetterberg.
As Detroit heads out on the road, each player is allowed to bring a guest with them. Most of them choose their fathers and the men beam with pride when talking about their sons. In Toronto, Tyler Bozak is treated by trainers and Carlyle discusses what he would bring to the team when he returns. Bozak also shows off his penthouse apartment that he shares with Phil Kessel. It’s pretty swank and I’ll admit that I was a bit envious.
In south Florida, the Wings strike first against the Panthers on a goal by Alfredsson. However, Daniel Cleary is dealt a blow (literally) shortly after touching the puck. Cleary ends up losing 10 of his teeth and his lower lip requires stitches. This moment shows that when you play hockey, you risk destroying your face. Zetterberg then puts Detroit up 2-0 in his first game back, which delights his father in the stands. In the second period, a penalty on Smith helps Florida cut the deficit to one goal and a breakaway goal ties it up. Smith would make up for his dumb penalty by firing a slap shot past the Panthers netminder for his first goal. Gustav Nyquist then nets the game-winner and Detroit escapes with a 4-3 win.
As the Wings appear to be turning a corner, the Leafs attempt to do the same thing at home against Carolina. Bernier puts on a show and shuts out the Hurricanes in the first period. Kessel then gives Toronto its first goal on a nifty backhand. While Cleary got hit by a puck and lost some teeth and earned stitches, Clarkson gets stitches of his own after crashing into the boards. As Clarkson gets his elbow sewed up, Kessel scores his second goal of the night. The Leafs eventually win 5-2 after Phaneuf gets an empty-netter. Bozak also notched three assists in his first game back.
Detroit takes on Nashville in their final game before the Classic. Jimmy Howard returns to the net for the Wings and frankly looks terrible against one of the lowest scoring teams in the league. Howard gives up five goals on 28 shots, and the Wings fall 6-4. He admits his performance was poor to the press and Babcock bluntly agrees.
We get another fun moment as Phaneuf and Kessel engage in another gripping Ping-Pong battle where the Captain regains his title. The team lands in Detroit and Phaneuf signs his new contract. Seven years, $49 million dollars. Again, a little envious.
Detroit had an open-air practice in Ann Arbor. Babcock talks to his players about the importance of getting two points in the standings, and enjoying themselves. The players are amped as they gleefully talk about the big game. The Leafs are also thrilled as they stop to take pictures around the finished rink. The two stitch brothers, Clarkson and Cleary, talk before the game about how fun the contest will be. Bernier gets the nod over Reimer thanks to his strong play the last few games.
After a New Year’s Eve block party the previous night, the largest crowd in NHL history filters into Michigan Stadium the following afternoon. Both teams play cautiously in the first period with the snow piling up on the ice. The main highlight is the sharp play of Bernier and Lupul’s big hit that knocks Patrick Eaves out of the game.
There is a sad moment between periods as John-Michael Liles is traded from Toronto to Carolina. It makes me wonder why the Leafs couldn’t wait to trade him until after the Classic.
My emotions changed quickly as the goals start coming in the second frame. Alfredsson gets the Wings on the board first on a 2-on-1 break, but van Riemsdyk ties it just 37 seconds before the end of the period after batting the puck out of the air past Howard.
The third period is just as entertaining. Bozak appears to give Toronto the lead at the 15:19 mark on a deflection, but the goal goes under review because of a possible high stick. The goal is upheld and the Leafs go up 2-1. Bernier continues to dominate in goal until the 5:32 mark when Abdelkader sneaks a feed from Smith past him. The period closes with a 2-2 tie and the game remains tied after the extra session. Zetterberg gives Detroit its best chance on a breakaway, but the whistle to change ends of the rink negates it. There’s a flurry of close calls for both teams, but both Bernier and Howard get the job done.
In the shootout, the Wings shoot first, but Alfredsson’s shot is wide. Howard then stops van Riemsdyk on the Leafs’ first attempt. Datsyuk beats Bernier glove side, but Lupul answers by beating Howard five-hole. Detroit’s third attempt is stopped easily by Bernier and then the hot Bozak gives Toronto a 3-2 win, firing the puck past Howard’s stick side. Howard expels his frustration by snapping his stick on the boards. Emotions subside quickly as both teams engage in arguably the best tradition in sports, the handshake line at the end of the game.
As the 2013-14 edition of the show concludes, kids skate onto a random rink. It talks about the dream of youngsters to make it to the NHL and what is the best thing about being a hockey player. HBO says the answer is easy. It’s “everything that they hoped it would be.” It’s hard to argue with that and it’s a great way to end this year’s series.
I’m already looking forward to next season.