(ED NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS)
“I wish that I could be like the cool kids/Cause all the cool kids, they seem to get it/I wish that I could be like the cool kids/Like the cool kids..."
Remember when hockey was hanging with the cool kids?
When we fit in with “Game Of Thrones” and Larry David and Lena Dunham and everyone else on HBO?
There’s always this yearning in the U.S. to get hockey a seat at the cool kids table. Fans still geek out when SportsCenter mentions the NHL in the first five stories of the show. I blew a gasket when Sports Illustrated put P.K. Subban on the cover ... but only in Canada. And yeah, having the NHL in the same reality series as NFL teams and mega-famous boxers was cool.
Having the NHL on HBO was cool.
The first episode of the NHL’s new reality series leading up to the Winter Classic, on a new network?
Don’t confuse “not cool” with “not entertaining,” because it’s literally impossible not to glean some fun from the “24/7” format and watching hockey players curse, carouse and cohabitate. Even the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs, who were the television entertainment equivalent of a rice cake dunked in warm water, managed to be watchable.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals were entertaining, but again, Episode 1 wasn’t cool.
I reference that Echosmith song at the top not only to establish this “cool kids” narrative I’m beating into the ground like Ovechkin mentions on EPIX, but because it’s the kind of song one might have heard during “24/7” – a recognizable tune that conveys the emotions of a scene.
And that was the first signal that EPIX’s “The Road To The NHL Winter Classic” felt banal: the music.
It wasn't the awesome collection of songs from "24/7." It was highlight reel filler. The kind of music you expect from the generic reality shows the NHL produced for its own network, rather than for its pay cable vangaurd.
Not to put too fine a point on it: Ep. 1 of the Maple Leafs/Red Wings season opened with Marvin Gaye and ended with a montage set to Cold War Kids.
See, that’s cool. And that was missed on EPIX.
Look, it’s a different network and a different series. Probably with a different budget for things like song clearance. But it all adds up. The lack of a strong soundtrack. The way Bill Camp, the Liev Schreiber proxy, can’t quite sell the grandeur of the narration; and the fact that the narration was far less flowery and more “commemorative DVD” descriptive on EPIX. The fact that the episode spent more time on the practice rink than it did in the players’ homes.
“HBO 24/7” felt transcendent. “EPIX Presents The Road To The NHL Winter Classic,” at least in the first episode, felt generic and ordinary, when it should feel like anything but that.
The Week On Twenty-Faux Seven
We begin with sparks flying off sharped skates and players leaving their homes for buses. As we’re settling into the familiar iconography of “24/7,” our narrator Not-Liev uncorks this clunker:
“There’s this thing about roads. They get overlooked a lot. Taken for granted. People don’t think enough about how you get someplace.”
This is, like, Hayden Christiansen spitting out George Lucas dialogue clunky. (“I HATE ASPHALT! IT’S COARSE AND IT’S ROUGH AND IT GETS EVERYWHERE.”)
OK, not the strongest opening, but now we’re visiting the Blackhawks for the first time in this TV franchise and it’s great. Quickly establishing their dominance as a franchise and Patrick Kane as Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews as Jonathan Toews.
They’re called the best team in the NHL. The LA Kings took away what they believe is theirs. Oh boy, actual stakes and a narrative arc! Too bad they’re preparing to take on an Eastern Conference team with whom they have absolutely no heat.
Speaking of the Washington Capitals, we meet Barry Trotz and the “new day” in Washington, which apparently means sitting backwards on a chair like a gym teacher that’s about to have a “rap session” with a troubled student.
The student in this case is Alex Ovechkin, whose passion and commitment Trotz vehemently defends. It’s defended again by Ted Leonsis, the Capitals’ owner, who actually says Ovechkin has “never complained and doesn’t come off as an enabled star player.”
(Somewhere, Dale Hunter’s head explodes.)
Back in Chicago, Jim Cornelison performs the greatest anthem in hockey, and we get to the thing Ross Greenburg’s reality shows always just nail: the game play.
The Montreal Canadiens are in town, and Joel Quenneville drops our first F-bomb on EPIX about 16 minutes into the episode. Andrew Shaw gets to the spotlight as a pest. Brandon Prust takes a dive in front of Patrick Kane. Quenneville is hilarious at all times, including his blunt “relay the message” to a linesman after the dive. It’s good stuff.
Meanwhile, in Washington, we see an elephant.
Trotz and his son, who has Down’s Syndrome, are visiting the National Zoo. They talk about the rough transition for him to move to DC. He gets scared by a lion. The whole segment pretty much makes you want to give Trotz a “DAD OF THE YEAR” mug and a Stanley Cup ring.
The Capitals bring Matt Niskanen a hunk of cake for his birthday, which we believe is a CBA violation. The Capitals defeat the Devils, who are apparently the new Florida Panthers for this season of “Road To The Winter Classic” (i.e. ubiquitous opponent). The Capitals hand out their Lincoln hat and beard as a victory celebration. No one makes an emancipation proclamation, mainly because Martin Erat is no longer with the team.
Back with the Blackhawks, and Corey Crawford is out with a sprained ankle. One assumes that the nature of his injury – he fell at a Rise Against concert – would make for an interesting tidbit for this show, but then again they probably can’t afford the music licensing for the flashback anyway.
Bryan Bickell, meanwhile, is our Face Of Hockey. And his interaction with Andrew Shaw is pretty great:
We get vignettes on Scott Darling – who names every team he’s played for by memory – and Patrick Sharp, whose return to the lineup will bring “more girls in the stands” according to Kris Versteeg.
Back in Washington, it’s time to meet the Magic Goalie Yoda Mitch Korn, and our pick for breakout star gets off to a strong start, including the fact that he basically lives out of his car.
Brad Richards has a lovely wife, an adorable baby and a ridiculous penthouse apartment in Chicago. Thank you, Rangers buyout.
The Blackhawks and Devils go to a shootout. The fact we said the Devils were in a shootout should tell you who won.
Trotz is great in practice. He tells Ovechkin that there was a time when the team couldn’t win without him and Nicklas Backstrom getting a point; now, they can go scoreless and the team can still win. The Capitals play the Lightning in another well-presented game, filled with much colorful yelling.
Toews and the Hawks are in Boston, where he and Duncan Keith take photos with the fans whose hearts they shattered two years ago. But that night against the Bruins, we get the most interesting segment of the episode by far: Toews concussion drama.
WARNING: STRONG ADULT LANGUAGE!
(Quenneville screaming "PEANUT BUTTER!" after Kane scored may be our new ringtone.)
Toews defiantly wants to remain in the game. Quenneville demands he go through the concussion protocol. There’s a “was this for the cameras?” aspect to this, but in any event it was a fascinating glimpse into the concussion process in the NHL
We’re back in Washington (because they keep using the same establishing shot of the Monument and the reflecting pool). Michael Latta and Tom Wilson are absolutely adorable roomies, right down to Wilson bragging about their Costco-sized collection of ketchup bottles in the fridge.
The Capitals face the Blue Jackets.
We don’t want to tell you how it turned out, but Caps super-fan Pat Sajak watched most of the game like this:
The end of the game features a tense little exchange between Trotz and referee Paul Devorski, in which Trotz complained about a call and Devorski responds with “YOU WERE ON THE POWER PLAY ALL F-----G NIGHT!”
Ouch. (The Capitals did have six.)
We end the episode with the Capitals all cursey and angry over their loss, and the Blackhawks literally strutting out of Boston with a victory. And we also end with more incredible narration:
“There’s this thing about a hockey season. As it goes on and on, it’s filled with things you forget about.”
Like most of this episode, for example.
31. Most of them originating from the Blackhawks’ bench.
Ovie’s back tats were the closest thing.
Hockey Geek Moment
The Capitals are totally cool with some of their gameplans being on display, right?
And check out the white boards under the big screen in their Tampa Bay prep meeting.
Missing In Action
Marian Hossa, Mike Green, Karl Alzner, Stan Bowman, Johnny Oduya, dogs, the President.
1. Barry Trotz, Washington Capitals. Already shaping up to be the next Dan Bylsma of “24/7” i.e. the coach who comes off brilliantly.
2. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks. He smiled like three times. Did he finally get his emotion chip?
3. The Washington Monument. It managed to get more airtime than Brooks Orpik.