EVP of Cream Films, Corey Russell, Talks 'All Or Nothing'

(The Globe And Mail) — There’s a cruel and comical irony to the decision by Amazon Prime to feature the Toronto Maple Leafs in the latest edition of its sports documentary series, All or Nothing.

The cruel part is obvious: Last spring, the Leafs suffered one of their most ignominious implosions in the first round of the 2020-21 playoffs, taking a commanding 3-1 lead over the Montreal Canadiens before being struck by an epic case of the yips – every eye twitch and puck bobble of which were duly recorded for humiliating posterity by a battery of Amazon’s cameras.


And the comical? Well, Prime is a movie and TV streaming service owned by a US$2-trillion logistics behemoth that is so bloody-minded and efficient that it can deliver anything in the globe to your door within 24 hours, yet one of the company’s enviable algorithms apparently determined it would be a smart move to align the brand with a professional hockey team that has taken 54 years (and counting) to bring home an oversized tin cup.


Still, critics who don’t believe anyone would spend four hours wallowing in the memory of a season that ended in a spectacular derailment have apparently never seen people slow down and gape as they drive past the scene of an accident. We’re suckers for real-life disasters, all the better to remind ourselves we’re still alive. I mean, c’mon: James Cameron’s Titanic did US$2.2-billion at the worldwide box office and no spoiler alerts were necessary because everybody already knew how the story ended.


The titanic hubris of those who built that allegedly unsinkable ship may come to mind when you mull the new five-part series, which began streaming on Friday. Being featured in All or Nothing isn’t quite the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, but enough teams have participated in the series and ended up with – well, nothing – that you may wonder why the Leafs would tempt fate.


It all started so promisingly. “Our goal was to give fans and viewers a peek behind the curtain, to see the inner workings of an NHL team,” said Corey Russell, the executive vice-president of Cream Films, the Toronto production company that made the series under contract to Amazon Prime Video and NHL Original Productions. “We had access to stuff that no one’s had access to before.”


Russell, who produced the series, bleeds blue-and-white: He remembers going to Maple Leaf Gardens when he was about eight or nine years old, in the late 1970s, to watch his uncle, Walt McKechnie, play for the Leafs.

So it was a bit of a thrill for him to be in the backrooms as Kyle Dubas, the Leafs’ general manager, negotiated with other GMs at the trade deadline, or counselled coach Sheldon Keefe (All or Nothing’s F-bombing star) on how to handle an errant comment to the media made by Auston Matthews, or to see both execs tap their inner Ted Lasso to try to help lost soul Alex Galchenyuk find his way.


Russell and his team had “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of hours of footage to choose from, shot by a cameraman embedded with the team, as well as a network of cameras operated remotely by crew who weren’t in the Leafs’ COVID “bubble.” Shooting the footage was just the first step: They didn’t really know what story they were telling until the Canadiens manhandled the Leafs out of the playoffs on the last day of May. They spent the summer slamming it together, with half a dozen editors and five story producers shaping the material.


The result is a slick and swift package, carried along by pitch-perfect narration from lifelong/long-suffering Leafs fan Will Arnett.


Russell admits he’d rather have told a different story. “As a producer, when you see what happens in Game 7, you realize you’ve got a very emotional kind of story beat,” he said. “It’s hard to separate my Leafs fandom from my producing, but I still would have rather told the story and been there at the end with the team raising the Stanley Cup. I think that would have been just as compelling, if not more compelling.”


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