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CBC's 'MVP' a steamy nighttime soap that had NHL brass nervous

TORONTO - The new CBC nighttime soap "MVP" hadn't even been publicly announced when the NHL came calling, demanding a screening of the show to ensure it didn't besmirch the league's reputation.

League officials, says "MVP" creator and executive producer Mary Young Leckie, were nervous it had a "Playmakers" on its hands - a show that exposed the sordid underbelly of professional football in the U.S. that ended up getting shelved four years ago by ESPN under intense pressure from the NFL.

"We had to be very careful," Leckie said Tuesday, but added with a laugh that she was well-acquainted with being cautious after producing "Shades of Black: The Conrad Black Story" two years ago for CTV, a movie about the disgraced media baron who at one time rarely hesitated to launch libel suits against those he felt had his story wrong.

"I am now the world's expert on dealing with legal issues because of the Conrad Black movie, and we had the same lawyers who worked on 'Conrad Black' working on this. From the beginning, they went through every single story outline because we knew the NHL could get litigious if it wanted to."

In the end, Leckie says, the league gave "MVP" its blessing. The show premieres Friday night after four years in development.

"They thought it was going to be another 'Playmakers' but I don't think we have that depth of depravity in the NHL, frankly," she said.

"And we treat our characters with love. In my mind, there's nothing more noble than a good, pure hockey game, and I hold those people in such high esteem. I have such a deep love for the game and for the country that I was never going to try to drag it through the dirt."

The true aim of "MVP," in fact, is not to make NHL brass hot under the collar - it's to lure to the CBC those much sought-after female viewers, the same nighttime soap fans who tune into American shows like "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy" in droves.

"MVP," about a fictional Toronto Maple Leafs-esque hockey team called the Mustangs, features a a handsome bad boy, a cold-hearted corporate villain, a virginal Cinderella type, a snakepit of locker room intrigue, enough sex to heat up the chilliest of hockey arenas - and, oh yes, an abundance of male eye candy often seen shirtless and parading around in all their buff glory.

"Women were a demographic they (the CBC) definitely wanted to go after," Leckie says. "And so this really hit that spot for them beautifully. I mean there are a lot of very attractive men on this show. Their advertising campaign focused on women, for sure. But I also think that we're going to get the guys because it's a great date show."

Kristin Booth plays Connie, the sweet and guileless heart of the show who's being wooed, much to her surprise, by the pretty-boy captain of the Mustangs.

"When I first read the script, I thought: 'This is the CBC, are you kidding me?"' Booth recalled Tuesday. "But this is a dream role to me because Connie has got a lot of elements to her; there are so many levels. I even got to stretch my comedic legs as well because she's very quirky."

The actress, born and raised in Stratford, Ont., confesses she was never much of a hockey fan until she met her husband, whose two brothers played for the American Hockey League. One of them, Jeff Ware, was a first-round draft pick for the Leafs and played briefly for the team.

"So when I met him and was introduced to that whole world and lifestyle, then I sort of became more aware of hockey and followed things and of course followed Jeff's career," Booth says.

But it wasn't until she shot a movie in Calgary that she chose a team to root for.

"We went to some Calgary Flames games and from then on, I was a diehard Flames fan."

Most Canadians, Leckie says, eventually fall under the spell of the NHL, and that's why she came up with the idea for the show a few years ago while travelling to Canada from London and noticing a story on a popular British nighttime soap.

"I was flying home from England and I was reading my favourite guilty pleasure, which is Hello magazine, and there was a spread on three of the 'Footballers' Wives' actresses. And I thought: 'Oh man, we should be doing that in Canada.'

"Originally we thought about franchising 'Footballers' Wives' but when I watched it, I just thought it wasn't really for a Canadian audience. It's very campy, it's very broad, and it just didn't speak to me. We decided to start ours from the ground up and so we just came up with all sorts of devious plots."

The show's writers and producers tried to tap the NHL for material, she said, but marvelled at how effectively the league manages to keep its dirty laundry private.

"The NHL has really managed to keep any of their little secrets under wraps in a way that I think only the Royal Family managed to pull off. Things don't leak very easily out of that world, so we had to do a lot of digging to find any dirt that was real, and then we just extrapolated on it."


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