Laviolette tests leaders in ‘Road to the Winter Classic’: Best of Ep. 1

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars as they prepare for the Winter Classic, held in the Cotton Bowl on New Years Day.

Every week we will recap the most interesting things we learned from Road to the Winter Classic, our televised countdown to the New Year’s Day outdoor showdown between the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators at the Cotton Bowl.

Interim coach likes his chances

Road to the Winter Classic opens with Stars general manager Jim Nill at a podium announcing the firing of head coach Jim Montgomery, and unfortunately for those seeking insight into the decision, that’s where the exploration ends.

The three-episode program — although shot crisply and capturing the on-ice action in salivating slow-mo — isn’t designed for investigative reporting. It’s an annual NHL-produced promotional vehicle for the Winter Classic, “The premier game on the schedule,” as noted by Predators defenceman Dan Hamhuis.

So, while we’d love Nill’s news conference to trigger a deeper look into the behind-the-scenes upheaval of a midseason coaching change, the page flips quickly to interim boss Rick Bowness.

It all feels a little too tidy.

That said, we are given a sense of what this opportunity means for the second-oldest coach in the league, as the cameras track Bowness on his drive to work and capture him breaking down his favourite stat.

Bowness tells the players that he’ll be tracking chances for and chances against and posting the results for everyone to look at. Naturally, the former defence and penalty-kill coach’s main objective is to chop down the Stars’ chances against.

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Do the Preds have the best player-of-the-game token? We’ll mullet over

Following Nashville’s 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 10, we are granted access into the winning dressing room.

“Who’s got the hat?” coach Peter Laviolette asks.

Winning goaltender Juuse Saros is then presented with a mesh-back Preds trucker cap affixed with a blond mullet wig. The Finn giddily pulls it on, extending his flow by a good 18 inches. Party in the back.

Hockey needs more silliness.

Seguin chirps the coach

An eight-year, $78.8-million contract affords a hockey player a particular level of comfort.

So when Tyler Seguin beats his boss to the office garage one morning, the Stars stud is not afraid to fire a friendly chirp Bowness’s way.

“I went by you going in reverse,” Seguin smiles.

“You got five. I got one,” Bowness replies, referring to Seguin’s fleet of cars.

“I’ll let you borrow one,” Seguin snaps back.

Fun stuff.

We want Johansen’s backyard

Ryan Johansen treats his properties like a 12-year-old who won the lottery.

When the centreman lived in Columbus, he built this sick backyard ball hockey rink/basketball court in Blue Jackets colours.

Since being traded to Nashville, he’s constructed a slick little pitch-and-putt hole off his back deck, complete with a bunker.

The crew catches up with Johansen and fellow B.C. boys Colton Sissons and Dante Fabbro as they work on their short game at night.

So jealous.

Laviolette challenges Predators’ core during tough loss

The NHL schedule-makers typically (and smartly) cue up a Winter Classic preview match a couple weeks out from the real deal.

In an intense divisional game between the Stars and Predators on Dec. 14, we’re granted a peek into the Preds’ dressing room after Dallas exploded for four goals in the second frame.

Laviolette — whose job must be considered something less than secure if Nashville (17-12-6) fails to make the playoffs — challenges his group for a response, focusing his attention on his big guns.

“It’s gotta come from the leaders of this team,” the coach demanded.

Matt Duchene finished that game minus-3. So did captain Roman Josi. Johansen, Filip Forsberg, Kyle Turris and Ryan Ellis were all dash-2. None registered a point a critical 4-1 loss.

Great drama.

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