The whole behind-the-scenes docuseries has been a bit played out. Hard Knocks started it, and it came to hockey almost a decade ago with the 24/7 series that tracked the two teams in that given year’s Winter Classic for the month leading up to the New Year’s Day game. Some of it was compelling stuff, especially the very first one with the Capitals and Penguins, as it was the league’s premier rivalry then. The Caps were such a mess at that time and the Penguins were the league’s hottest team, so it made for the kind of juxtaposition you can’t write, especially when it ended with the Caps winning the game.
The appeal of these is still there, because it’s fun to see the facilities and be in the dressing room and get some of the in-game and pregame build, though they never really get into the nuts and bolts. It’s all pretty surface level, even if the locations of the cameras are areas we don’t often get to see. Revelatory they rarely are.
But the upcoming All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs on Amazon, which debuts Friday and documents last year’s COVID season for the Leafs, is sure to provide headaches and irritation for all of the hockeysphere.
The common joke among hockey followers everywhere is to butt in with “How does this affect the Leafs?” in any conversation about the game or league, no matter the subject. Because for most of the Canadian press, and by osmosis a good portion of the American one, everything comes back to the Leafs. They’re the only team in the country’s biggest city, and on top of that they have the league’s longest Cup drought. With the 24-hour news cycle, the air constantly has to be filled with Leafs talk, as its fanbase is ravenous to know just about everything. Not only is it the league’s biggest fishbowl, it’s one of the largest in all of North American sports, as well. It’s for a lot of the same reasons your Sunday Twitter, wherever you are, is inundated with Bears thoughts and/or grief. Make the sport’s largest fanbase, communally, also the most headless and desperate, and this is what you get. And the whole thing feeds on itself. Call out their need for attention and it only gets worse. “You don’t understand!”, even though every fanbase basically has been bad or titleless in the same way the Leafs have at some point. Perhaps the most infuriating aspect is that we do all understand.
The past four years, Leafs media and fans have been desperate to make them out as some sort of cursed symbol for the futility of life. They want what the Red Sox or Cubs had but rose above eventually, except they want it to be louder.
And it’s hardly that complicated, though the docuseries will be dissected by everyone in the Toronto Sun, the Mail, the Globe, The Athletic, and all 10,000 independent weirdo Leafs bloggers to try and find what witchcraft has kept them from seeing the second round. Whatever Mitch Marner has to say, it will be used as justification for his label as a big game floater. If Auston Matthews doesn’t track down Marty McSorley at his home and fight him on camera, he’ll be derided as never the leader that can bring Toronto to the point of collecting the Cup from Gary Bettman. John Tavares, despite being nearly decapitated in Game 1 last year against the Habs, will be viewed through the prism of “captain worthy or not” for every interaction. Which he’s already had enough of thanks to the Islanders playoff runs since he fucked off to Toronto in free agency. It won’t end. And you can’t escape it.
It’s as simple as this: For two years, the Leafs ran into a better team in the Bruins. And the Bs were only marginally so, given that both series went to a Game 7. And then the Leafs tried to play Freddie Andersen in goal for those with a straight face. No result in the bubble of 2020 should really be taken as anything to draw conclusions from. Last year they lost their captain as mentioned above, and Jack Campbell was an even worse solution than Andersen was. Especially as Carey Price went supernova in Game 6. These things happen in hockey. Play that game again and the Leafs more likely win 4-1 and move on.
But that’s not enough. It’s not enough that Morgan Rielly might not really be a #1 D-man or that because of their star-studded top six that’s paid like it, they can only afford aging and barely-kept-together vets on the bottom six, who get outskated by other teams’ kids. For everyone around the Leafs, there has to be something unquantifiable to justify their persecution complex.
And we’ll never be rid of it. This series will be referenced when the Leafs run into Tampa or Boston or Florida, all of whom are very good to great teams, come April. Any of those series would basically be coinflips now. And if it comes up tails again for the Leafs, the rush for any writer or follower to say, “I knew this would happen in episode two when Marner ordered the chicken instead of the fish! He doesn’t want it enough!” You thought Phil Kessel and the hot dogs were bad. Just you wait.
There’s always more noise around the Leafs, even when Toronto has a recent NBA champion and what looks to be a playoff caliber MLB team for the next few years. The Leafs aren’t all that matter in the NHL and Toronto, but everyone acts like it is. So this might not be additional noise, but it will be more grating. Even if like always, All or Nothing doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.