[NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.]
"The road is where the stories are."
This is the message given to us early on in the first episode of the Epix series following the Capitals and Blackhawks over the next four weeks. The focus is on all of the roads traveled by NHL teams, whether it's from game to game or from league to league, and the lives that unfold along the way.
And it's the focus of much of the first episode, as we see the Caps and 'Hawks travel along their respective roads - alike in some ways, different in others - and begin to explore how their lives are shaped by these paths, on and off the ice.
There's a lot to like as the series gets underway, even as it eases us in a bit too slowly at first. We meet the players and coaches who will, for the next month, let us into their lives and behind closed doors for a glimpse at the road to the Winter Classic.
And away we go...
The scene opens on a pair of skates being sharpened - the mode of transportation, if you will. It's followed by a montage of players on the bus, walking down hallways towards the locker room or the ice, getting out of cars. We're informed that "the road is where the stories are", and it's clear that this is where the focus will be - early footage of games is brief, almost an afterthought before we're back to the hallways, the buses and the next city.
Our first visit to a locker room is that of the Chicago Blackhawks, where Kevin Dineen is talking to some of the forwards, leading into some exposition on this Chicago team. We learn that they started slow but are heating up (and in the world of metaphors, that's a nice one for the show itself). We see them lose in overtime last spring, an image that would make you feel bad for the 'Hawks... if Game 7 heartache weren't something Caps fans have come to know as a near-annual rite of spring.
And with it comes the narration: "You don't forget losses like that, but good teams know how to use them."
Next up, the first bit of personality on display from a player, and unsurprisingly it comes from Jonathan Toews... okay, maybe that is a bit of a surprise. We see him changing out his stock of sticks in mock disgust, commenting that they're no good because they won't let him score... STUPID STICKS. And then Captain Serious himself smiles, and it's captured on camera for all the world to see. This is no ordinary show.
But enough of that frivolity - it's time to hit the road, as it were, as we head down to Washington to meet the Caps and their new coach, brought in after a(nother) disappointing season to change things up. "We needed to get rid of all those demons we had", notes John Carlson... but before we can wonder if there are enough exorcisms in the world to get rid of all of the Caps' demons, we're taken inside the room for the first time.
We catch a glimpse at Barry Trotz reviewing video with his team (where he is, oddly enough, talking about poor puck management) before hitting the ice for practice. And it's here that the first mention of the Alex Ovechkin-Barry Trotz dynamic is made, with Trotz mentioning just how many times he was asked about his new superstar - although one imagines that 1001 is a lowball estimate. First Trotz, then team owner Ted Leonsis, step up to bat for Ovechkin and note that the critics are mostly wrong, and we're treated to a montage of Ovechkin's greatest hits. And goals. He's good at hockey, guys.
Naturally talk now shifts to Ovechkin's desire to win and his ability to evolve as a player, both of which are often the targets of critics outside the Beltway. The narration is cut over footage of Ovechkin walking down a hallway - symbolic footage, perhaps, as we continue the theme of journeys and roads and follow along with Ovechkin en route to being a better version of himself. A bit heavy-handed, but it works.
Time for another journey! This time we hop on board with Chicago opera singer and anthem crooner Jim Cornelison as he winds his way through the hallways of United Center and onto the ice, preparing to sing the national anthem as thousands cheer over him. Always a cool moment, but one that we're given just a glimpse of before getting right to the game.
The 'Hawks are hosting the Canadiens in a wild one that features a goal from Michal Rozsival (and a reminder that a 2C on a great team doesn't have to be a great player). And there it is, almost 16 minutes into Episode 1... the first f-bomb. Followed by the second, third, fourth, and so on. All roughly 100 or so of them come from the mouth of Chicago's esteemed coach, Joel Quenneville, as he watches his team battle with the Habs.
It's an interesting game, with a lot of physicality, a lot of cursing and an exciting late-game finish, as well as the awarding of the 'Hawks "player of the game" trophy, a championship belt... but really the biggest takeaway from this segment is that at one point Brad Richards is shown without a shirt on.
And Brad Richards should really have a shirt on.
Back to Washington we go, and we're spending the day with Barry Trotz, his wife Kim and their 13-year-old son, Nolan, at the National Zoo. So far all we've seen of Trotz is the coach side - this is the family side, and as always, it's a great side. Trotz talks about the transition for the whole family to a new town, and about how hard it was for Nolan, and we all wipe a tear away as we watch Nolan happily run from the arms of one parent to the other and back again. His family away from the rink is why Trotz tries to create an atmosphere of family at the rink - because on the road, they are a family.
So we're whisked away to check in on that Caps family as they're settling in for a pregame meal in lovely New Jersey, only to be interrupted by Tom Wilson, who is carrying a slice of birthday cake. It's Matt Niskanen's birthday! And they're all singing! And it turns out that no one on the Caps can sing!
Another layer of the onion, peeled.
Niskanen digs into his cake as his teammates (and all of us) watch enviously... and then it's right back to work, as we get our first in-game experience with the Caps against the Devils. It's the perfect game to capture on film, if only because it gives us video proof that Jay Beagle can actually score pretty goals. And after the game, it's the goal-scorer himself presenting the Abe Lincoln beard and hat to Braden Holtby, who miraculously is able to fit both beard and hat over his existing beard and hair.
Back in Chicago, we see players wandering around the practice rink, with Corey Crawford instructing the film crew not to film his ankle... for some reason. We know your ankle is hurt, Corey. It's okay.
Well, since they can't film his ankle, it's time for some actual footage of the toll hockey can take on the body: Enter Bryan Bickell, whose face has basically exploded. Sure, it's not the horrific, nightmare-inducing image that Matt Hendricks gave us a few years back, but still... ew. Bickell explains how he got the exploding face - stick, post, fist - and then receives sage advice from teammate Andrew Shaw: "You're not supposed to go face-first into the post."
Who says hockey players aren't smart?
We move on from Bickell's bruised visage to goalie Scott Darling, who has been called up to help out in net while Crawford is sidelined. For Darling, this is just one stop on a very long road that has taken him around the US. He rattles off his various stops on the path to the NHL... and it totals 13. Basically he's been every single kind of animal and verb known to man, which is pretty amazing considering that he's only been a pro for about four years.
From rookie-but-well-traveled goaltender to veteran goaltending coach, we get our first introduction to Mitch Korn, who has already become something of a legend in DC. We meet him as he's wheeling a luggage cart filled with hanging clothing through the halls of a hotel - so the first thought is that he's on the road with the team, and just prefers not to pack, right?
Wrong. Turns out Korn is something of a nomad even at home, making his DC-area residence at a hotel. That's not all that strange; after all, he has an offseason home, and he's still kind of new to the area. A lot of people live in hotels. What's a bit, shall we say, quirky, is that he checks out of his hotel room before heading out on the road with the team - and then checks back in when they get back. Every time.
Let's go with special.
Back in Chicago, we join Richards, who is spending some rare down time with his wife and adorable two-month-old son, Luca. Richards notes how, in this day and age of technology and facetime, he doesn't miss much - but you can tell that's not nearly enough, and it's hard not to feel a bit sad that this new father and son will soon be saying goodbye again. Because time at home is just a pit stop on the road that is the NHL... or something.
And just like that, it's time to hit the road once more.
After seeing Blaine Forsythe address the room, and after a shot of Karl Alzner lying on the ground with his head propped up on a tennis ball (no, really, why is Alzner's head propped up on a tennis ball?) we get to spend some time with the twins, Jason Chimera and Joel Ward. Ward, ever the studious one, is reading a newspaper, while Chimera, ever the mocking one, is well, mocking him. In response to questions of whether he's just looking at pictures, Ward retorts "I went to a four-year college"... oh, SNAP. More of those two, please.
We head back out on the ice, where we see Trotz being what his predecessor was billed as being but never seemed to be: a communicator. He checks in with Ovechkin and with Nicklas Backstrom, then has a chat with Andre Burakovsky about being a scratch again that night. The rookie doesn't seem to mind, which speaks to both Trotz's ability to communicate and Burakovsky's maturity - both of which we were already aware, but hey, it's nice to have microphones and cameras confirm.
Then it's time for Tampa, from the starting lineup being announced in the room (a single clap and a cheer after each name, which is kind of adorable) to the final speech by the coach: "We bent but didn't break." Hey, there's a team motto for you. Or a fan one.
Back on the road, the Blackhawks are in Boston - the site of their last Cup win two years ago, in a city not known for having the kindest fans. But they do seem to like the 'Hawks at this particular moment, as we see Toews and Duncan Keith posing for pictures with assorted Bostonians while out to lunch.
Fast-forward to the game, and we get to see Brad Marchand being Brad Marchand as he knocks Patrick Kane into the boards from behind, followed by the first NHL goal for someone named Klas Dahlbeck (no, really). But the most interesting part of this one is the hit by Dennis Seidenberg on Toews, who goes headfirst - and awkwardly - into the boards. True to hockey player form, he says he's fine and stays on the ice for the ensuing power play. A few minutes later, with Toews in the box, Quenneville learns that Toews needs to go checked out - something that Toews is not thrilled with upon being told the same thing.
But back he goes, and while we don't get to see the concussion protocol that takes place behind the slowly-closing door, we see Toews removing his gear, his night over earlier than expected. There's some comfort - some - in knowing that there are at least some precautionary measures taken when it comes to head injuries... although perhaps it was just because the cameras are there. After all, the act of observing something changes it, the medium is the message, etc.
Next we learn that two members of the self-proclaimed "Rookie Crew", Tom Wilson and Michael Latta, are roommates - and that they share what is easily the most sparsely-decorated apartment in the history of ever. But hey, they've got a ping-pong table and a big, comfy couch, so they're all set. Wilson talks about playing on a line with guys like Backstrom and Ovechkin, with Latta smirking in the background, and we learn that they have an inside joke about no one being allowed to touch "Dad"... aka Backstrom.
Which is downright precious, while simultaneously making those of us who saw Backstrom get drafted feel really freaking old.
Anyway, it's time to get back on the ice - this time for that memorable Columbus game. The foreshadowing starts early, with our old pal Paul Devorski engaging in some chatter with Trotz about what is going to get called. Could it be that something is going to happen with a penalty that will prove to be important??
Cue Jason Chimera taking the bad penalty in overtime. Cue Pat Sajak looking upset. Cue Jay Beagle and Brooks Orpik getting a shorthanded two-on-one chance (and Trotz, again, speaking for all of us with a nice "what the F&%$"). And cue the Blue Jackets putting it away, followed by an incensed Trotz yelling - not at Chimera, but at Devorski, who (rightly) notes that the Caps were on the power play "the whole f&%$ing game!".
Sad Chimera in the penalty box, sad faces in the locker room, aaaand... scene.
We close out the episode with another montage cutting between the teams - this time focusing solely on the captains as they walk out of the arenas, onto buses, and around the locker room. We see Ovechkin shoveling the ice at practice and Toews surrounded by microphones, answering questions about his injury. A glimpse at where the focus may be next week, because it's where the focus always is - on the two men charged with leading their respective teams down the road to the Winter Classic.
3. Baby Richards, because adorable babies are always a highlight
2. Wilson and Latta
1. Mitch Korn
Disappointments: NEEDS MORE TWINS.
See you next week!