Road to the Winter Classic: Best of Episode 1

Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom comments on the unveiling of the Caps 2015 Winter Classic uniforms and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman comments on the event.

So what if it’s not on HBO anymore?

The four-episode Road to the Winter Classic is back for a fourth go-round, this time on Epix (and Sportsnet 360) and produced by Ross Greenburg, who has only won 52 Emmys.

The quality, pacing and imagery of the mini series remains intact. We open with sharpened blades, scanned tickets, stitched nose bridges, and heated blades. There is grand talk of the journey towards greatness, the hard work, the joys and pains of being a professional hockey player.

Here are 15 things we learned from a solid first effort by Epix.

1. The Capitals’ Player of the Game tradition is way more fun.
The Blackhawks pass around a boxing-style championship belt to the Player of the Game, a befitting gesture for a club Patrick Kane calls “one of the better organizations in the NHL, if not the best.”

But Washington’s new post-win dressing-room tradition rates much higher on the awesome scale. The players hand off an Abe Lincoln hat and strap-on beard to the teammate who puts forth the most honest effort of the night.

In Episode 1, goalie Brayden Holtby gets the honour. Since his own beard is more prodigious than the faux Daniel Day-Lewis model, it looks extra ridiculous.

“I love that,” coach Barry Trotz told earlier this season. “To me, that’s a team having fun and it has great significance, especially in this area. Not many teams can go with Abe Lincoln. I asked them why they went with Abe and they said he was honest Abe and the guy that’s put in the honest day’s work gets the Honest Abe hat and beard.”

2. Dennis Seidenberg’s dangerous hit on Jonathan Toews makes great theatre.
Compelling television, watching the aftermath of the Boston Bruins’ defenceman’s crushing hit on the Chicago captain. The decision from the Chicago bench is that Towes — who has a concussion history — must exit the ice, per NHL protocol. But he doesn’t leave until after playing another shift, and he’s bummed he has to leave at all. It’s a shame that the door closes on the Epix camera crew before we get to watch the medical checkup.

Coach Barry Trotz goes one-on-one during practice

3. We want Barry Trotz to be our dad.
In the best off-ice segment, Trotz and his wife take the youngest of thier four children, 13-year-old Nolan, to the Smithsonian National Zoo. Nolan, who has Down’s syndrome, quickly became a “lightning rod for the family,” Trotz says.

Trotz spent the past 15 years coaching the Predators and Nolan misses Nashville so much, his dad has caught him looking at his old yearbooks and circling photos of his friends.

“That tears at your heart,” Trotz says.

4. Speaking of dads…
Capitals players Tom Wilson, 20, and Michael Latta, 23, have such reverence for 27-year-old centre Nicklas Backstrom, they call him “Papa.”

“No one touches Backy,” Wilson says.

5. Corey Crawford is still embarrassed.
We learn that the Chicago goaltender’s “lower-body” injury is a sprained ankle, the one he suffered while attending a concert. We also learn he doesn’t want his injury caught on film.

“Don’t film my ankle, please, thank you,” he directs the cameraman.

6. After his second shiner of the month, Bryan Bickell can sure deliver a hockey quote.
“First shift of the game, I got sticked in the face. Got some repairs. Then I hit the post with my face again. Then I got in a fight. It was just a bad game overall,” Bickell says.

Following a pause, “But we won. That was the good thing about it.”

The national anthem in Washington is something special

7. Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn lives in his car.
This is so good. Korn, a Florida resident, can live season-long in a Washington hotel, paid for by the club. But when the team embarks on a road trip, he feels guilty about someone paying for a hotel room he’s not sleeping in so he checks out every time before leaving town and piles all his stuff in his car, which he rigged up with a clothes rack for all his golf shirts.

“I actually live in my car,” the immediately likable Korn says. “Sounds funny, but my car is my closet.”

He then checks back in to a different room, and often can’t remember which room is his because he’s pinged around the whole hotel.

8. Jason Chimera and Joel Ward are best buds.
Ward opens a newspaper in the dressing room.

Chimera: “What? Are you reading the pictures?

Ward: “I have a four-year college degree.”

Chimera: “Home economics. Or shop.”

9. The Blackhawks relish a rare return to Boston.
After posing for photos in a restaurant with a bunch of starstruck Bostonians, Toews reminisces about the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, Game 6.

“It always feels good to back into that locker room and think about all the champagne that was flying around that one night,” he grins.

10. We don’t miss Liv Schreiber as much as we thought we would.
The actor’s crisp, smart narration was the glue that held HBO’s 24/7 together for three seasons. How could he possibly be matched?

Well, by little-known actor Bill Camp (12 Years a Slave, Lincoln), whose timbre and cadence is so similar to Schreiber’s that my wife walked in the room and said, “Well, at least they kept the same narrator.”

Happy birthday, Matt Niskanen!

11. Tom Wilson and Michael Latta live like college kids.
Teammates and roommates, the Capitals’ kids have decked their place out with little in the way of shelves or furniture or art. They do, however, have a ping-pong table
and three giant bottles of ketchup (Costco deal) in a mostly empty fridge.

12. There is nothing quieter than a losing dressing room.
After the surging Columbus Blue Jackets rally to defeat Washington in their own building, 3-2 in overtime on Dec. 11, the Caps’ room is like a morgue.

Damn, if winning doesn’t matter to these guys.

13. We could watch coach Quenneville scold referees all day.
When Montreal’s Brandon Prust takes a dive and draws a penalty on Patrick Kane, Toews characterizes it as a “horses— call.”
Then Coach Q motions the offical over for a chat.

“Kaner didn’t even touch him and he fell,” Q says. “Relay the message.”

14. Scott Darling has played for more teams than you
Chicago’s rookie goaltender (since sent back down to the AHL now that Crawford is healthy) is asked to run through the list of teams he’s played for, and the 25-year-old remembers:

North Iowa Outlaws, Capital District Selects, Indiana Ice, University of Maine, Louisiana IceGators, Mississippi RiverKings, Florida Everblades, Wichita Thunder, Wheeling Nailers, Hamilton Bulldogs, Milwaukee Admirals, Cincinnati Cyclones, Rockford IceHogs, Chicago Blackhawks.

A simple scene that says so much.

15. Needs more Ovie.
As well-executed as Epix’s first shot at Road to the Winter Classic was, the series needs more Alex Ovechkin, who we’re sure will get more screen time in future episodes.

Especially if owner Ted Leonis has his way. Dude is loyal to his captain.

“He’s coachable. Whenever a coach comes in and asks him to block shots, he’ll block shots,” Leonis says. “He’s never complained. He’s never come off as an enabled superstar.”

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