Amazon’s Toronto Maple Leafs series was almost worth the wallowing

All Or Nothing is an all-access look at one of the team's most devastating seasons – whether or not you're ready to relive it


All Or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs. Five episodes now streaming on Amazon Prime. Rating: NNN


How much do Leafs fans like wallowing?

That’s a question hanging over Amazon Prime Video’s new five-part series following the Toronto Maple Leafs throughout the entirety of the hockey team’s doomed 2020-2021 series.

If you watched that season, you already know how it this ends: a promising regular season followed by an utterly deflating first-round playoff loss to their forever-rivals, the Montreal Canadiens – the 17th season in a row in which they fail to win a single playoff series. They haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967, and despite a lot of optimism going into the season, they still haven’t.

That creates an unusual structure for a sports series. Fiction or non-fiction, these things can get formulaic: adversity to overcome, inspirational coach speeches, obstacles dodged and lessons learned.

It seems like that’s what the team had in mind by inviting in Amazon’s All Or Nothing crew – who’ve also followed American and English football teams, but not yet hockey. If this was the year the Leafs finally shed their reputation as choke artists and changed the narrative, of course you’d want to have an all-access documentary about it.

Players, coaches and the show’s narrator, real-life Leafs fan Will Arnett, all talk throughout about how 2021 was supposed to be the year, how a certain goalie or player or trade would be the one to finally deliver the cup. You can’t help but cringe every time. Sports shows don’t usually have this much dramatic irony. There’s a doomed fatalism hanging over the whole thing. Arnett’s very first line is “it happened again.”

“Tough to watch”

In an interview with NOW, Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas admits the series can be “tough to watch.”

It makes you relive having been in those moments, it makes you relive the disbelief of the fact that that we weren’t able to take advantage of the opportunity,” he says. “When you do these jobs and you’re in this business, those types of things can stick with you for a long time, maybe forever. I completely understand that this coming out now will only serve to kind of open the wounds again for our fans and people who follow the team, but for us, those wounds have been open since we lost.

“Seeing this [series] and seeing a lot of the things we do well, seeing how much the guys care about one another and about what we’re doing, the way that they responded to the loss, I think it only serves as a boost as we head into this season.”

If you can get past the outcome, All Or Nothing is quite intriguing at times. Unlike basketball and increasingly baseball in which athletes are encouraged to show off their personalities and connect with fans as people, hockey players and coaches tend to play things pretty close to the chest. Their post-game interviews are riddled with cliché’s about “your best players having to be your best players,” getting “pucks in deep” and, for some reason, overusing the word “obviously.” Like the Toronto Raptors show Open Gym, this doc series does give more of an insight into the players as human beings.

You meet young hotshot scorer Auston Matthews’s adorable parents on their shooting range in Arizona and hear his mother, who is originally from Mexico, say she likes her son’s mustache because it makes him “look a little bit Mexican.” You see captain John Tavares talk to his lacrosse star uncle about how to age gracefully as an athlete, see how grizzled veteran Joe Thornton deals with injuries (sometimes graphically), hear about Mitch Marner’s music selections and see team oddball William Nylander bluster with confidence. You’re a fly on the wall as the team bonds over video games or golf, talking about the importance of “chem.”

You also get to watch them navigate one of the strangest NHL seasons in history, one in which they played in empty stadiums and only against other Canadian teams. The teams meeting room is socially distanced, everyone wears masks and players are forced to quarantine after getting traded from an American team. You can even see the guys getting COVID tested.

No fuckin’ bullshit

As much as you might learn about the players, though, the secret stars of the show are Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe. Those guys are often tasked with playing good PR for the team when talking to the media, but they have a no-bullshit tough love approach when talking to each other and the team that might come as a surprise.

The word “fuckin'” seems to be every player’s favourite interjection, but even more so their coach. It’s every second word out of his mouth, like “we gotta fuckin’ control the fuckin’ pace against fuckin’ Vancouver so we can fuckin’ get on our fuckin’ way to winning the fuckin’ cup.” When his star scorer, Matthews, criticizes his game plan as “too safe,” Keefe isn’t afraid to take him aside to tell him why that bothers him – then gather the team to ask if anyone else wants to air their concerns.

He often takes players aside during practices for heart-to-heart conversations, either positive or negative, without sugarcoating. In one memorable scene, he tells Jimmy Vesey, a once-hyped player now looking for a chance, that he was expecting him to find his niche but that right now his game is “very vanilla.”

Even more of a surprise is Dubas, a seemingly mild-mannered 35-year-old executive in Clark Kent glasses. When he replaced the veteran GM Lou Lamoriello a few years ago, he was treated by the media as a hockey version of Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball – a young, progressive analytics nerd who started in front offices when he was 25 but never played the game himself. All Or Nothing is quick to tell us he’s actually a “pure hockey guy” who came from a hockey family.

The most illuminating scenes involve him and Keefe meeting in his office and speaking very openly about players’ strengths and weaknesses. Dubas is not a yeller or screamer (a stigma that exists in the Leafs organization after fired head coach Mike Babcock was revealed to be a bully to his players), but he’s very direct and to the point. There’s no dancing around a subject.

A memorable scene for him comes early when he tells a frustrated player, Ilya Mikheyev, why he’s not getting much ice time. But he’s humanized too, comforting the players as they cried in the locker room after their game-seven loss to Montreal.

“I just saw the coaching staff and the players, how devastated they were,” Dubas tells me. “I thought that in my position, it’s incumbent on me to go in and try to get these people moved along and sort of pick them up a little bit. We couldn’t have people sitting in the room crying for hours. The staff needs to go home and different things of that nature.”

All or nothing

Dubas says he’s never seen a group of players so distraught after a loss, and even if you’re a calloused Leafs fan, you’ll still feel some sympathy. Ultimate nice guy “Soupy” Jack Campbell, whose rise from third-string to starting goalie is one of the feel-good arcs of the season, takes it the hardest, openly weeping in the locker room. You want to reach through the screen and give him a hug.

Despite the rawness of that scene, though, it ends somewhat abruptly. It’s strange to say we could have used more wallowing, but there isn’t much perspective about what went wrong or what lessons they’ve learned from it, just a quick optimistic note from Dubas that the greatest successes often follow the greatest disappointments. The new season is about to start, and there are a few changes but the seemingly stacked core of the team – Matthews, Tavares, Marner and Nylander – is still the same.

I do have a new sense of who the team is, but if the show was meant to give me a reason to keep watching the team this season it didn’t work. Until they win a playoff series, there’s very little reason to trust their regular season success. The fact that the series is named All Or Nothing is another unfortunate bit of fatalism.

Player Nick Foligno says it best.

“Nobody looks back at winning game 47 of the regular season.”

@trapunski

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