(ED NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS)
Formulaic television can be comforting in its predictability.
For example, every episode of the NHL’s Winter Classic reality show franchise opens and closes with a soliloquy from the narrator, capturing the spirit of the road or the brutality of the sport or some other aspect of hockey life. It’s like reading a novel: We hear the opening chapter, and then 56 minutes later our eyes scan the final words and close the book.
Breaking that formula, then, can be dramatically jarring. Which is why the end of Episode 2 of EPIX’s “Road To The NHL Winter Classic” was so devastating.
This episode covered the sudden death of Clint Reif, 34, the Chicago Blackhawks’ assistant equipment manager. He traveled with the team from Columbus back to Chicago, and the players found out before a home game against Toronto that he had died.
(Because Ross Greenburg’s shows are so damn good at collecting every shred of footage it can, there’s actually a segment introducing Reif to us before his death.)
Episode 2 of the series – which, it should be said, completely outshines the uneven season opener – closes with Coach Joel Quenneville delivering the news that Reif passed on, acknowledging his family.
There’s no music. There’s no closing narration. The episode ends with Quenneville’s tear-soaked red eyes, ambient noise and a tribute to Reif before the credits roll – a hundred times more effective than any eulogy could have been.
This edition is a reminder that given the material – a death in the family and a 20-round shootout, for example – no one balances the human and the competitive side of hockey better than the Greenburg crew.
Conversely, no one’s better at setting up pins and then knocking them down.
Witness the symmetry between the locker room reactions to wins and losses; the way players are introduced before we see them involved on the ice; for the Capitals, the way the theme of “culture change” with Barry Trotz has been a line through two episodes; for the Blackhawks, the way their standards of success are intensely upheld by Joel Quenneville.
Then there’s Reif. We have Blackhawks management talking about how the team is a family, echoed by Reif himself. We have the Capitals dining out with their own trainers and equipment staff, talking about how vital they are. We have an entire episode dedicated to fathers and their children, right through Nicklas Backstrom talking about how difficult being away from his young daughter can be as a hockey pro.
And then we end with the death of a father, a friend, a member of the hockey family.
I promised myself I wouldn’t go evoking that previous show on HBO, but I’ll say it anyway: This episode was as good as anything “24/7” produced.
COORS LIGHT COLD HARD FACT
Say, did you know that when Alex Ovechkin DJs in the Washington Capitals locker room, he doesn’t play the pulsating Euro-trash dance music he listens to? No, he plays reggae or country music.
Say, do know what happens when you play an Alex Ovechkin country ballad backwards? He wins in Sochi, he beats the Penguins in 2009, he only has one coach with the Capitals…
THIS WEEK ON TRttNHLWC
“Being great shouldn’t be easy.”
This is true, as we see a pre-credits montage of blood, sweat, pain and all three represented well on Bryan Bickell’s jacked up face.
The episode begins at the Kettler IcePlex, the Capitals’ practice facility that sits atop a suburban shopping mall. It’s FAMILY DAY! Adorable montages of dads skating with babies and players skating with wives and girlfriends. Karl Alzner brings his newborn to the rink. She promptly dekes around Mike Green and scores.
Barry Trotz brings his son Nolan on the ice to help him learn to skate. “Some coaching jobs are tougher than others. Some are more rewarding,” says the narration. Just heart-melting stuff.
Now we’re with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, two of roughly 25 people at a Washington Wizards game. Ovechkin is a Man Of The People who sits in the front row and freely walks the concourse in search of ice cream, continuing the odd trend of Capitals and their on-camera frozen treat journeys, lest we forget the great Search For Hagen-Das with Bruce Boudreau on “24/7.”
Ovechkin spends some time in the Wizards locker room, doing his best not to notice how much nicer it is than the Capitals’.
Now we’re in Sunrise with the Caps for what we assume will be the rest of the episode and then most of Episode 3 for that shootout.
(The Panthers, thanks to last season of ‘24/7’ and this episode, have now appeared on pay cable more than Bill Maher in the last two years.)
The shootout is fun and epix ™, capturing the bizarre moments like Brooks Orpik getting his Datsyuk on and the sublime moments like when a Capital exclaims that goalie coach Mitch Korn “had a pitched tent in the stands right now” over Braden Holtby’s play. (Conversely, one assumes the goals that get by him are, in fact, boner killers.)
What we really want to see: The Caps in the room after the game. They’re bummed, but Trotz pounds home the idea that a point on a road against a hot team is the only important thing.
The whole segment is roughly a billion times more effective and evocative about life on the road than that bad Lincoln commercial that kicked off Episode 2. Which is to say that comparing the “live/die/repeat” nature of the hockey life to the actual game, especially when it’s illustrated by a 20-round shootout hundreds of miles from home, blows away “there’s this … thing … about roads…"
Back with the Blackhawks, Corey Crawford’s got a bug up his ass. Upon seeing the EPIX cameras, he says “oh [expletive], what do you want to ask me?” And then drops some mad clichés. C’mon man, rise against [clichés].
Great moment on the bench during the Hawks’ game vs. the Calgary Flames, as Bryan Bickell wonders if a frustrated Patrick Sharp is “ever going to be happy” after returning from injury.
“Good thoughts make good [expletive] things happen.” Truer words …
The segment sets up the Scott Darling vs. Antti Raanta battle to remain with the Hawks and play behind a returning Corey Crawford, which is essentially like watching two actors battling to be the understudy. Decent human drama, not exactly the greatest stakes.
The Capitals are in Columbus, which means it’s some for the further adventures of Michael Latta and Tom Wilson:
Seriously, just stop this episode now and give us these two describing the plot of INTERSTELLAR for the next 25 minutes …
The Capitals and the Columbus Blue Jackets play an intense game.
CRAZY EYES ORPIK INTENSE.
In a nice bit of symmetry, we see both Wilson and Latta fight and then sit in the box together, no doubt further discussing Latta’s apparent Atkins’s diet.
It’s one of those games that this NHL reality series does best – violent, unpredictable and with an Eric Fehr overtime goal. The scene in the Caps’ locker room is one of the best of the episode, with ecstatic faces and Ric Flair “WOOOOO!”s and another brilliant bit of symmetry, as we see Trotz’s enthusiastic postgame comments and the players’ celebration in contrast with their muted ones after the Panthers’ shootout.
“And they wonder why I lost my hair,” laments Trotz.
Back in Chicago, we spend some time with “the mutt” Andrew Shaw, who hones his taunting skills … taunting his teammates.
Back on the ice, we hear the official announcer of the Blackhawks, Pat Foley, and their unofficial announcer, Joel Quenneville, who conjures the spirit of Bruce Boudreau in his bench chatter. Here’s an example; we’ve replaced the offending word with “rutabaga.”
“HOLY RUTABAGA! IT’S A RUTAGABA GOD DAMN MOTHER RUTABAGA TONIGHT.”
“I’M GOING TO GO RUTABAGA MENTAL IN THIS RUTABAGA GAME TONIGHT.”
It’s an incredibly intense game, and again the writers have set up and followed through: We see Andrew Shaw’s mutt act result in an elbow to his head, and then we get to see his reaction to the concussion protocol in juxtaposition with the Toews in Episode 1 – just like we get to see how the Blackhawk react to adversity vs. how the Capitals did 10 minutes ago.
Now it’s Blackhawks Holiday Party time, and Shaw’s wearing this:
The Hawks have a family skate, and we meet Patrick Kane’s girlfriend ever so briefly. Someone is dressed as a Gingerbread Man, and that’s unexplained. Dan Carcillo meets a teammates newborn baby and says “she looks like me, huh?” Which is perhaps the most Dan Carcillo thing that’s even Dan Carcillo’d.
Both John McDonagh and Rocky Wirtz stress the importance of family, and it’s the first time I realized they’re going to cover a death in that family in this episode.
We visit with Scott Darling in Rockford after his demotion. It’s sad, knowing his journey to the NHL, but again, it’s minor league demotion of a backup goalie.
The Capitals are still in Columbus, and Trotz clearly didn’t get the FIGHTING BAD!!!! memo because he puts over Latta’s fight as something that galvanizes the team and makes the Capitals hard to play against.
The team flies to New Jersey and has dinner with their unsung heroes, the equipment and training staff. Just to further set up what we know is coming in Chicago. The Capitals beat the Devils and Ovechkin scores a sick unbelievable goal.
Back in Chicago with Patrick Kane, as the Hawks hang at their fan festival. He’s called a “very nice young man” by one of them. Dawwwwww.
Now we’re back in the locker room and meeting Clint Reif, who is the assistant equipment manager for the Blackhawks. He’s packing up the gear, talking about how much equipment they haul from city to city. He talks about the players, he talks about the tightness of the bond between everyone in the room. It’s a family.
And now we’re counting down the minutes until we’re absolutely devastated.
The Blackhawks play in Columbus, losing in a shootout. Bickell can’t score to extend it. Crawford loses his return.
We head back to Chicago, the waters of the lake rolling over ice. It’s cold. It’s bleak. And we learn that Reif, 34, died suddenly.
Quenneville, tears in his eyes, takes the podium.
We end with a title card that remembers Reif, displayed in silence.
71. Thanks Joel.
Other than Nick Backstrom’s nipple, a chaste affair.
HOCKEY GEEK MOMENT
The behind the scenes sessions with Trotz and the Capitals, from “dry land” training to the film breakdown of Latta’s fight.
MISSING IN ACTION
Jonathan Toews speaking, Marian Hossa, Brian MacLellan,
1. Clint Reif. RIP. That is all.