An American city trying to punch back and using its legendary hockey team as a symbol of hope compared and contrasted to a sprawling Canadian city with passionate fans who have withstood the test of time -- time that has not been so kind to its historic hockey team.
This was the theme in the chilling opening montage of Part 1 of "24/7 Red Wings-Maple Leafs: Road to the NHL Winter Classic" that debuted on HBO in the United States on Saturday night.
With "The Star-Spangled Banner" playing quietly on one side and "O Canada" on the other, Liev Schreiber's narration is heard over images that eloquently show the stark differences and striking similarities between Detroit and Toronto as well as between the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs, the teams that will meet in the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"In a proud but struggling American city, they hear a lot about what they don't have anymore; they prefer to focus on what's still going strong, a team that's been a model of success for decades in a sport that's entrenched here not just in name, but in culture," Schreiber says, reading writer Aaron Cohen's words. "They love hockey in Detroit, though across the border there's an entire country that treasures the game as its national pastime. And in that country's largest city for generations the home team has been at once adored and agonized over."
However, just like the adversity that has tested the will of Detroiters in recent years and the championship-starved Maple Leafs' fan base for nearly a half-century, their respective teams have been trying to battle through their own struggles of late. Those trials and tribulations were featured in Part 1 of HBO's four-part series, which can be seen on Sportsnet in Canada on Sunday.
For the first time since HBO started featuring NHL teams in its "24/7" series, an episode did not include a win for either of the Winter Classic teams. HBO cameras captured the Red Wings losing twice to the Florida Panthers, and the Maple Leafs losing to the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings.
Adversity was the theme.
Fortuitously placed microphones caught Maple Leafs forward David Clarkson pleading to the officials that he was jumped by two guys, Bruins defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Zdeno Chara. That same microphone picked up Chara saying, "I didn't jump you; just protecting my guy."
Late in that same game, Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf illegally boarded Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller, forcing Carlyle to cringe on the bench.
"Dion, come on, buddy," Carlyle says.
The next day, HBO captured a conversation typically reserved only for team personnel, showing Maple Leafs senior vice president and general manager Dave Nonis and vice president of hockey operations Dave Poulin preparing for the phone hearing Phaneuf was to have with the NHL's Department of Player Safety later that morning.
"It is a fair process," Poulin said.
Cameras were not permitted in the room for the phone hearing, but Phaneuf received a two-game suspension. HBO filmed Carlyle delivering the news to Phaneuf when the two were on the ice prior to the start of practice.
"I got two games, so how do you think I feel?" a clearly agitated Phaneuf said in the dressing room. "Not very good, but that's the way it is."
In Toronto's next game against the Kings, the cameras captured enraged Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul taking a whack at the back of Slava Voynov's legs, leading to the Kings defenseman turning around and dropping his gloves to fight Lupul, who was playing his first game in more than two weeks.
Lupul, though, wasn't done once the officials jumped on top of him and Voynov, ending the fight with the players prone on the ice. He yelled at Voynov, using choice language to tell him how displeased he was with the defenseman.
"You [expletive], keep your stick down," Lupul screamed at Voynov.
Babcock had words for an official who waved off what could have been a goal for Daniel Cleary against Florida because of contact with the goalie.
"I just know in this league we're trying to get more goals, not less," Babcock pleaded, his voice booming from the bench as it typically does.
The next day in Tampa, HBO caught Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard being helped off the ice due to a left-knee injury that will keep him out of the lineup for 2-4 weeks.
Howard was shown limping out of the Tampa Bay Times Forum and later with his leg propped up on top of pillows while he lay in his hotel bed watching television; the image of a struggling goalie without the physical ability to get his game going for the next little while.
But the vulnerabilities of the teams weren't all that drove the dramatic first episode.
Viewers had a chance to see rookie Tomas Tatar read the Red Wings' starting lineup before the game against Florida at Joe Louis Arena. He was encouraged to insert his own brand of comedy and snark, a new Red Wings tradition created by Babcock.
On an off day for the Red Wings, Daniel Alfredsson, his wife, Bibi, and their four children were featured in their suburban home putting up holiday decorations. Alfredsson took his three older boys to Joe Louis Arena that day so they could skate.
It's quite a contrast from what the Alfredsson family was used to during the 14 years in which Daniel was the captain of the Ottawa Senators.
"I think we were all so super-excited when we first got here and then we realized this is it, we're staying here, and this is what we're doing," Bibi says. "Then they started missing their friends and the regular life that they had. So, it's been a little bit challenging, but overall I think it's been good."
There were several "did you know …" moments in Part 1.
* Did you know that Phaneuf has a sprawling walk-in closet that features dozens of suits, shoes and even select bow ties that the Maple Leafs captain wears to games?
You do now.
"If you have to wear a suit to work, why not have fun with it?" Phaneuf's wife, actress Elisha Cuthbert, said as her husband kissed their dog. "And he definitely has fun with it."
* Did you know that Carlyle, who is known as a stern but fair coach, has a lighter side? You found that out when he laughed and called for maintenance after his bread got stuck in the toaster in the Maple Leafs' cafeteria at Mastercard Centre.
* Did you know that Babcock goes for a 30-minute run through Joe Louis Arena after every Red Wings practice? How about the fact that Red Wings players sometimes get to eat cookies with their names and numbers on them during their flights to road games?
* Did you know that Detroit's dinner crew of Danny DeKeyser, Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, Kyle Quincey and Brendan Smith talks about Pavel Datsyuk when they're dining?
* And did you know how Toronto center Nazem Kadri truly feels about Carlyle?
"He brought some hope and faith into this organization that not only could we win, but we could be one of the best teams in the League," Kadri says.
So far, the Maple Leafs and Red Wings are middle-of-the-pack teams in the Atlantic Division. They've had their share of warts popping up since HBO's cameras started rolling, warts that were on display in Part 1 of the four-part series but could soon help these proud teams give their fans something good to scream about.
"In a season that lasts so many months and is composed of so many games, there are facts of life that can be hard to appreciate, none perhaps more counterintuitive than the reality that losing is one of the most important things a team can do," Schreiber says. "Painful as defeat can be, there's no more powerful way to reinforce togetherness. Frustrating as it may seem, there's no more valuable method for recalibrating tactics.
"On the road to their outdoor clash and well beyond, adversity will continue to shadow them. Simply playing through it might well be the most important thing these teams can do."
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer