HBO 24/7 Red Wings-Maple Leafs Episode 4: Phil Kessel and a Classic Finale

Greg Wyshynski

(ED NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.)

We’ve waited weeks for it.

We’ve yearned for it, hope for it, wondered what it would be like.

Finally, in Episode 4 of “HBO 24/7 Red Wings-Maple Leafs: Road To The NHL Winter Classic, it arrived:

Copious amounts of Phil Kessel!

Oh, and an outdoor game played in front of 105,000 fans as well.

The Winter Classic was the visual hockey porn we all hoped it’d be, right down to Tyler Bozak’s game-winner in the shootout. But it’s the chronicling of the coaches’ talks and bus trips and practices, along with incredible access to video and audio on the ice, that makes us watch “24/7” and made the second half of this episode incredibly memorable.

We’ll do a postmortem on the season as a whole later. As a standalone episode, this was entertaining and insightful, even if it continued this season’s “throw every narrative at the wall and see what sticks” approach. (Jimmy Howard’s return from injury to lose in the shootout seemed like a incomplete plot, for example.) The overall themes for the season – the Wings and Leafs looking to the Classic to kickstart their seasons, and that all NHL players are just grown-up kids that played on the pond – were either forced by the teams’ misfortunes or veering off in cliché.

It wasn’t a season that reached the consistent quality of the previous two, but you make the most of the material you have if you’re HBO. And luckily, Episode 4 had the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor.

KEEP IN MIND ALL THE VIDEOS HAVE STRONG ADULT LANGUAGE!

This Week On 24/7

Previously on “24/7”, the Leafs and Red Wings played against each other, which is great, because it means at least one of them had to win.

We begin with the seamstresses stitching together Winter Classic jerseys, which allows for one of those classic “24/7” metaphors: Yeah, these teams have sucked for three weeks, but this is an opportunity to turn their seasons around. Or in “24/7” terms, “commitment is so essential to the FABRIC of their plan” and the game is a chance “to RE-ADORN their season,” which is just completely twee.

We then hear the sounds of a marker on a white board, as Mike Babcock dry-erases a bunch of numbers and writes down a bunch more, signifying that the Wings are finally getting healthy. That includes captain Henrik Zetterberg, who Dan Cleary calls the most unselfish player in the league. Sir, have you seen Alex Ovechkin’s assist total?

It’s the father/son trip for the Red Wings. Justin Abdelkader’s dad looks like Robert Duvall. Brendan Smith’s dad laughs a little too hard at a “getting away from mom” joke. Zetterberg’s dad wears a Zetterberg hat. Babcock is asleep.

Back with the Leafs, Tyler Bozak is takes the ice, as he returns from injury and talks about how badly he’s wanted to play. We don’t see his back-shadow, but we do see his foreshadow…

This leads to something we’ve waited three episodes to see: PHIL KESSEL TIME!

We hang with Kessel and Bozak at their downtown Toronto highrise, where they wear gray toques, watch a lot of TV and play a lot of pool. Bozak’s room is roughly the size of a bathroom stall at the ACC and he plays video games at the foot of his bed. Kessel’s bedroom is opulent and has a four-post bed. Yes, Phil Kessel literally dreams between the posts.

Jebus Christmas, it’s the Florida Panthers. Again. Four episodes in and we’ve seen more of Tomas Fleischmann than Johan Franzen this series.

One place “24/7” never lets us down is with injuries, and there are two doozies on this edition. The first is Dan Cleary, who took a puck to the face and lost 10 teeth. Not for the squeamish, or the needle-phobic.

KEEP IN MIND ALL THE VIDEOS HAVE STRONG ADULT LANGUAGE!

The second injury came courtesy of David Clarkson, who hurt his elbow during an entertaining Leafs game against the Carolina Hurricanes. (Money quote, from Kessel on Nathan Gerbe: “You think that little rat can beat me up? He’s the littlest guy in the League.”)

Here’s Clarkson’s elbow. Juicy!

The Wings and their dads head to Nashville. Jimmy Howard gets smoked in his return to the team. Babcock says he’s still starting the Winter Classic.

Meanwhile, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel play one more epic game of ping-pong before the Winter Classic.

KEEP IN MIND ALL THE VIDEOS HAVE STRONG ADULT LANGUAGE!

Cue the “if they only had that much intensity in Game 7 in Boston” taunts …

(Fun little moment: After Kessel scores a goal he credits to luck, he chides Phaneuf for being “so [expletive] lucky” in his ping-pong victory. It’s the little things that make “24/7” shine.)

We’re finally in Ann Arbor, where Phaneuf is signing his 7-year, $49-million contract. Well, the paper’s nice and crisp, so it doesn’t look that terrible. He returns to his hotel room where Elisha Cuthbert is waiting to give him a congratulatory smooch, thus bringing the Phuthbert storyline full circle.

Hey, remember how this show is called “Road To The NHL Winter Classic”? Three hours and 28 minutes, and we’ve finally arrived!

The Big House Porn in this episode is palpable, although at times it seems like the stadium’s capacity is better established than the fans filling those seats, outside of a brief detour to see a New Year’s Eve “puck drop” in Ann Arbor. (In fact, the narration actually refers to 105,000 fans as “just a detail.”)

There’s an incredible moment when the Leafs arrive on their bus and are so overcome with joy about the game that they run out and check the rink. Incredible in the sense that SOME OF THEM ARE WEARING SHORTS. This is more manly than Clearly coming back to play with a broken mouth.

HBO cameras capture a power outage in the Leafs locker room. Turns out it was just Clarkson’s offense.

It’s Winter Classic Day! The Leafs arrive late because of weather-related delays, leading to this exchange:

RANDY CARLYLE: “Bozie didn’t get you here on time, Phil?”

KESSEL: “Good one Randy. Good one”

CARLYLE: “BUURRRRRN!”

Aw, Gramps is so hip. Now if he could only work the toaster without supervision…

The Classic is presented, as expected, with breathtaking cinematography. It was hard to get a sense of how heavy the snowfall was at times, but it was swirling on the rink. The ice-level video is simply amazing. So is the audio: The coaches’ frozen mouths starting to pinch their words, the players getting increasingly more vulgar as the game continues.

A detour: John Michael-Liles gets traded to the Hurricanes before the game. It’s a little jarring to see this introduced in the middle of the sweeping narratives of the Classic, but it pays off later with some bittersweet goodbyes after the game in the victorious Leafs locker room.

Back on the ice, the goals start coming. Alfredsson – who earlier was called a “[expletive] hero” by Phaneuf – scores the first goal. Then JVR’s swipe out of the air.

Back in the locker room, we get coach intensity and Dan Clearly repeating the mantra “we’re better than them, boys.”

Bozak’s goal scored with his stick in the air – there’s some good interplay with Phaneuf and the refs about where his stick was – and then Abdelkader’s equalizer. All the while, Bernier’s making ridiculous saves in a ridiculous hat.

We buzz past sudden death into the shootout, which is the most glorious presentation of the skills competition you’ll ever see. Well, outside of Tomas Tatar’s attempt.

Bozak wins the game. The Red Wings aren’t really into shaking hands but do so. The Winter Classic ends. Carlyle says “three weeks under the microscope” ends that night. Ken “3 on 3 OT” Holland laments the shootout. Liles hugs his teammates one last time.

And with that, we reach the traditional awesome finish to “HBO 24/7”, this time score by “Welcome Home” by Radical Face:

“The best thing about being a hockey player is that being a hockey player is exactly what they hoped it would be.”

F-Bomb Count

39, and most of them at the Winter Classic

Nudity

The cameras cut away from Phuthbert’s room too early.

Hockey Geek Moment

All the equipment talk and stick taping during the Classic.

Missing In Action

Conversations with Pavel Datsyuk and Joffrey Lupul; any Leafs defenseman not named Liles or Phaneuf; Big House tailgating.

Three Stars

3. Phil The Thrill. Worth the three episode wait.

2. Dan Cleary’s mouth. In words and in bleeds.

1. The Big House. Of the three “24/7” series, by far the best visual experience once we reached the Big Game.