Monday, November 8, 2021

All or Nothing Toronto Maple Leafs: An Embarrassment of Riches

When the most intriguing scene of the teaser for All or Nothing: Toronto Maple Leafs doesn't appear in the actual series, you know you're in for a monumental disappointment.

Leafs All or Nothing
At least All or Nothing didn't disappoint in the disappointment category. That scene you might have noticed in the promotional lead-up to the release of the Amazon series? The scene where Kyle Dubas says his patience is wearing thin? Nowhere to be seen in any of the five episodes. 

The makers of All or Nothing were granted behind-the-scenes access to the Toronto Maple Leafs for the entire 2021/21 NHL season and the playoffs. Hundreds of hours of footage, they said. And this is what they came up with?

For the most part, we get maudlin set-pieces featuring a half dozen or so players. And many viewers may go for that kind of thing. Interviews with the families of Auston Matthews and Jason Spezza. Nick Foligno saying goodbye to his family as he departs for Toronto after being traded to the Leafs. Zach Bogosian with a nice story about his grandmother. And a couple other similar bits involving players and coaches.

What about the everyday goings-on at the rink? Some players clearly like the camera more than others. Joe Thornton seems at ease and rather likable though he veers into buffoon territory a few times. Matthews makes numerous bland, post-game comments. Others, including Morgan Rielly, are rarely seen or heard.

Sheldon Keefe, head coach of the Leafs, is probably on camera more than any other single member of the organization. At practice, in meetings, talking with Kyle Dubas, Leafs GM, and behind the bench during games, Keefe is generally heard yelling and cursing. Other interviews with Keefe were obviously spliced in after the season to make him seem more prescient and less of a loud-mouth.

And the oft-criticized Mitch Marner? He seems to shrink in behind-the-scenes footage. He's oddly silent in locker-room intermissions. Or perhaps he and his entourage demanded his utterances be sliced out of the final cut. Judging by his cringe-worthy commercials, it was probably a good idea.

Speaking of endorsements, Marner sure likes wearing hats featuring a sponsor's name and logo. Throughout the series, does he show up outside of the rink more often in Leafs gear or sponsors gear? Not sure. Maybe worth another look.

Marner Height Weight
And here's one for the conspiracy theorists. In a few scenes in Kyle Dubas's office, we see shots of magnets with all players names and info on a whiteboard. But only Marner's magnet is absent height and weight information. Why might that be? Probably nothing more than a simple oversight. Or perhaps his stats changed recently and hadn't been updated (though certainly he's finished growing height-wise).

But that won't stop people from speculating. Marner has developed a reputation as being obsessed with managing his image. And his entourage has a reputation for meddling. So a demand to keep his official height and weight secret wouldn't be surprising.  

The narration is on par with everything else in the series. The narrator, Will Arnett, has a good voice. But the script is lacking. Using 'we' 'our' and 'us' just doesn't work. Sure, plenty of fans have the habit of speaking of their team in that way. But here, it comes off as contrived. Be sympathetic and biased in the team's favour? Sure. But with some separation and a more impersonal tone, the tension could have been increased, the suspense ratcheted up, the official party line challenged to some degree. But here you get a sycophant for a narrator. It's overwrought attempts at inspiration, simplistic observations, an occasional cringe-worthy try at humour and a few instances in which he inserts himself into the narrative with personal anecdotes.

Even game footage in the show disappoints and often fails to capture the essence of what transpired. Remember Game 6 against Montreal? And that disastrous sequence that included William Nylander's goalie interference penalty, Keefe’s ill-advised challenge on the Habs resulting power-play goal and then Marner's puck over glass penalty to put the Leafs down two men? Never appears in the game action. Not even a mention.

To be fair, aside from the games, there is some drama. After a regular season loss, Auston Matthews says in a post-game interview that the Leafs played "too safe." This sparks a discussion between Keefe and Dubas. Later, Keefe addresses the comments in an off-ice meeting with the team. If that off-hand comment resulted in real concern and urgency, then you know the best stuff never made the final cut.

A handful of players—Jimmy Vesey, Frederik Andersen and Ilya Mikheyev—receive some criticism in face-to-face discussions with Keefe and are the subject of some conversations when they're not around. Andersen and Vesey were no longer with the team when the series was released, and Mikheyev is not part of the team's core. That's basically all you need to know about whose egos have to be managed with the greatest care and who can be called out in public.

I can't really blame the players and the team for the content of the series. They want to protect their reputations. So they no doubt demanded the right to have final say on what scenes were left on the cutting-room floor. That’s too bad. Because with a subtle hand, the results could have been iconic and memorable.

People being interviewed tend to respond with clichés. Professional athletes even more so. And so you push back. Ask the same question. Re-phrase it and ask again. Seize on hesitation, doubt, the merest hint of an original thought. Gain the trust of the interviewee and slowly you draw something worthwhile out of him.

Most documentary film-makers will tell you they start out with an idea and begin filming. But reality inevitably takes things in a different direction. And so they go with it. But this documentary has the feel of setting out to, above all, soothe egos and avoid embarrassment. No unscripted insight from the stars of the team. Nothing that might make them seem more human. No indications of fears, worries or doubts. Mostly stock answers given in press conferences after games or carefully worded Hallmark card sentiments in the fluff pieces.

Surely there were some compelling storylines that emerged. Some tensions that came to the surface. Anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional. When rich young athletes get together, one thing is certain. Arrogance, entitlement, jealousy, resentment and self-doubt are in abundance.

Game 7 Loss to Montréal
Ultimately, the mediocre final result falls on the film makers. Sure, they may have been limited by what the organization was willing to share. But they were also too desperate not to offend or sorely lacking in creative instincts, or both. Nothing authentic emerges here. A better title would have been An Embarrassment of Riches, for the overpaid star players who consistently under-perform when it matters the most and the film-makers, who had a glorious opportunity to make something memorable but failed. 

The final clichéd scene shows Matthews and Marner alone in the dressing room after the Game 7 loss to Montréal, towels over heads. They either knew what was expected of them or it was completely staged. Either way, together with the closing voice-over—one last cringey attempt at earnest, moving commentary that falls flat—it perfectly sums up the series. Just not in the way the film-makers hoped it would,