Based on the NHL... with Extra Sex, Drugs and Rock N' Roll

Jan 5th 2008

Just as Canadian television junkies thought they were staring down a cold, hard winter of strike-induced reruns, the CBC turns up the heat with MVP, a sexy, high-priced, hockey soap opera, and a slew of bold new programming, premiering all next week This is not your mother's CBC

By: GAYLE MACDONALD

Three years ago, Richard Stursberg, then the new head of English television at the CBC, made a promise to a roomful of skeptical broadcast executives that he would increase Canadian drama on his network by 50 per cent, pad his schedule with 10 per cent more comedy, and launch a prime-time soap.

This week, the public broadcaster unveils a slew of new shows - including the prime-time soap opera MVP, which focuses on the off-ice antics of hunky hockey players and their bored, bodacious wives, who flash more boob and bottom than ever before seen on our once-staid public broadcaster. With such bold dramas as The Border and jPod, and the single-mom sitcom Sophie rounding out the list of new CBC offerings, it would seem Stursberg has made good on his word. In fact, the executive has not only met his targets, but surpassed them, with total hours of dramatic programming up 68 per cent from 2005, and comedy up 41 per cent.

Mary Young Leckie, creator and executive producer of MVP, says the "sexy, not sleazy" show is a departure for CBC Television, which is clearly hoping to score with a younger crowd and more female viewers - both key demographics for advertisers.

"Mothers need not fear for the morals of their young watching the show ... at least not too much," promises Leckie, who pitched the series four years ago to Slawko Klymkiw, who was then CBC-TV's executive director of network programming (a title now held by Kirstine Layfield).

"We're bold about showing a little bit of skin because we have some beautiful people in it, but there are great storylines here, and we've got a kick-ass soundtrack," adds Leckie, who produced 2006's Shades of Black: The Conrad Black Story for CTV. "We think MVP is to the world of hockey what Entourage is to the cult of Hollywood celebrity."

Certainly Cancon supporters are encouraged that the CBC, which for years has been criticized for not sufficiently hyping and financially backing its new shows, is finally making a concerted effort to promote its new series - an undertaking that just might result in Canadians tuning into Canadian-made programs instead of feeding on a steady diet of American shows simulcast on CTV and Global. And in a year that the CBC was poised to fight hard for prime-time viewers, the U.S. writers' strike has given it an even better shot of succeeding, with so little American fare hitting the small screen in the months ahead.

Production costs for MVP's 10 episodes rang in at a $14-million - and the end result is a slick, sex-charged program that Leckie is hoping will resonate with a culture obsessed with hockey and fascinated by the private lives of those who play our national game. Even though a cross-promotion with the National Hockey League was arranged, the show's reputation as a sultry soap raised eyebrows early on. The league asked for copies of the MVP pilot when details of the show initially appeared in the media. But it subsequently gave the series its quasi-blessing, adding in a statement: "Obviously it is not a fair or accurate depiction of the people who make a living in our game and in our league. But we also understand that it is created as a fictional account and that it's not intended to be 'real.' We trust our fans will know the difference."

Perhaps because she had a role in smoothing ruffled feathers at the NHL, Layfield prefers to play down the sexy, soapy elements of MVP, which has its premiere at 9 p.m. Friday. "We prefer to think of it as a one-hour drama," she insists, "because it's not a telenovella. And it's not a soap in the afternoon. This is a high-end drama, with a lot of intrigue and twists."

For simplicity's sake, let's say MVP is a drama/soap starring Lucas Bryant as Gabe McCall, the nice-guy captain - a la Mats Sundin of the Toronto Maple Leafs - of a team called the Mustangs. Gabe is falling for virginal daycare owner Connie Lewis (Kristin Booth), who prefers cute summer frocks to bustiers and tight jeans, and is drawn to, but terrified of, the hockey player.

The cast is filled out with bad-boy enforcer Damon (think NHL player Todd Bertuzzi), played by Peter Miller, who had five seasons in the Canadian Football League before turning to acting. Dillon Casey plays the new rookie superstar Trevor (think Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins), from the fictional Ontario town of Loon Lake, and is the first-round draft pick.

Deborah Odell is a desperately scheming hockey widow, Natalie Krill plays a promiscuous daughter of a former hockey legend, and Anastasia Phillips is the rookie's small-town girlfriend.

Booth, who hails from just outside Stratford, Ont., and Bryant, who grew up in nearby Elmira, are the two morally upright, if flawed, characters in the series. When they first read the script, both were shocked it was being made for the traditionally buttoned-down CBC.

"It has a more steamy, sultry, sexy feel to it than anything I've ever seen on the CBC," says Booth, a recently married 33-year-old who chuckles at the fact that she's been cast as a 25-year-old virgin. "I remember my jaw dropping when the script for the pilot had a sex scene that involved double-teaming. It never shows that happening, but I remember going, 'What? For the CBC, a threesome is pretty risque!' "

Bryant, who now lives in Los Angeles and has appeared in such shows as Queer as Folk and Crazy Canucks, says he was intrigued by what he calls the "racy" nature of the script, which was toned down once production got rolling. "Everything got shuffled around a bit, as it always does," says Bryant. "But for the most part, they kept all the juice, which isn't very common for the CBC," adds the 29-year-old, who grew up playing right wing for teams like the Woolwich Minor Hockey Mothers. (You read that right.)

Leckie got the idea to do the show on a flight from Britain, where she was leafing through Hello! magazine and came across an article on Footballers Wives, a British television drama about a fictional premiership football club. "I was like, 'Why aren't we doing something about hockey?' " recalls Leckie, who grew up in Omemee, Ont., west of Peterborough.

"Hockey was part of my childhood mythology. It's almost our national religion, for God's sake." So with help from head writer and co-creator Kent Staines (along with writers Sherry White and Tim Kilby), Leckie started formulating the scripts, with characters like the rookie Trevor, who was based on boys she knew growing up.

"I remember an American TV buyer looking at the pilot, and saying, 'Would anyone care if a kid from the middle of nowhere is the first-round draft pick?' " recalls Leckie. "And I said, 'Are you crazy? This is every kid's dream!' "

Leckie has a difficult time describing the show using pre-existing templates. "It's a very different beast. You can compare it to Footballers Wives, but it's not that. It's not campy. You can call it Desperate Hockey Wives. But it's not that either. Desperate Housewives is a black comedy. We're not. There's a real, true centre to this story. We care about the characters from the beginning. We want to take our characters seriously, so our audience will take us seriously. In MVP, outrageous things happen. But it's all very believable in the context of where these characters live and breathe."

As for Booth and Bryant, both say MVP was one of the most fun, stress-free, flesh-flashing sets they've ever worked on.

"Poor Dillon, the rookie, is naked half the time," says Booth with a laugh. "I know the trailer for MVP is the secret lives of hockey wives, and there are a lot of breasts and legs, but honestly, there are more naked men in the series than women."

In the past, a debate over how many naked men versus naked women appear in a new CBC show would have been unthinkable. But the CBC has seen the future, and is ready to test the ice.


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