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The Verdict: Blackhawks enjoying prime-time coverage in Winter Classic TV series

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
Promotional photo for "EPIX Presents: Road to the Winter Classic," airings Tuesdays through Jan. 16. (Courtesy EPIX)

Only a very few years ago, the Blackhawks required viewer discretion. They did not televise home games, and road games were occasionally unwatchable. It was almost as though hockey, like a severe weather warning, interrupted regularly scheduled programming.

Now the must-see Blackhawks are everywhere, and they are not alone. In preparation for the Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals at Nationals Park on Jan. 1, a phalanx of cameras has been dispatched to chronicle both teams throughout their daily rituals.

A four-part series on EPIX is the mission, the first of which was shown on Tuesday. The second chapter is next Tuesday, Dec. 23, and it would be worth your while to find the premium channel or one of several alternatives. It isn’t always that you can do lunch with Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith.

The National Hockey League treasures its secret codes, but by providing this type of access, the industry takes you behind closed doors to find the essence of a sport that is growing in scope and popularity. Fans love the game, but they also sense that its people are genuine. EPIX confirms the notion.

Tuesday’s opening hour was not only insightful, it gave a glimpse into current events. When Toews adjourned to the locker room in Boston after having his cage rattled last week, it was recorded for posterity. Players are not accustomed to this sort of company, but the Blackhawks can’t walk down a street without being recognized. Partaking of a comprehensive documentary is merely another facet of celebrity.

“We try to be like a fly on the wall,” said Ross Greenburg, executive producer of “Road to the NHL Winter Classic.” The idea is to be on the scene without being intrusive, and by all accounts, embedded camera crews did not infringe on the Blackhawks’ stretching exercises in a hotel ballroom.

The first episode features a lot of Jim Cornelison, whose national anthem is a rendition unlike any other, and another voice, Hall of Famer Pat Foley. Game action is prevalent, but so are snapshots of Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell debating what is uglier—the former’s new coiffure or the latter’s strawberry by the right eye, courtesy of a wayward stick.

Coach Joel Quenneville is wearing a microphone on the bench. He is punctilious in civilian life, but his language while pacing the bench is rated Q, which is fine because it is real. In a collision sport such as hockey, the world’s fastest game, emotion is rife and the vocabulary ripe.

Besides, Quenneville most beloved word – “excited” – is PG. When he gushes over a Blackhawk goal by chirping “peanut butter,” you wonder what gives. But his explanation works. That puck went to the roof of the net, which is where Mom hid the peanut butter when he was a kid: top shelf.

That initial hour is split between the Blackhawks and the Capitals, so we are also introduced to opposing characters. Mitch Korn, Washington’s goalie coach, lives in a D.C. hotel. But whenever the Capitals depart for a road game, he checks out and deposits his entire belongings into a car. Korn easily could keep his room, but being a former goalie, he need not apologize for being eccentric.

Speaking of which, Scott Darling, the Rand McNally of masked men, details his circuitous path to the NHL with all its forks in the road. Meanwhile, there’s Corey Crawford tiptoeing around the practice facility with an injury that for all the world was described as “lower body” until the ubiquitous EPIX retinue delivers the goods. It’s a sprained ankle, folks.

Brad Richards is visited in his high-rise residence, holding son Luca with Rechelle nearby. She hails from Australia and is still coming to terms with winter in Chicago. (Rechelle ain’t seen nothing yet.) Coming soon: EPIX attends the Swedish Christmas party thrown by the Swedes at a Swedish restaurant.

Many surprises are forthcoming as the “Road to the NHL Winter Classic” series continues on each Tuesday through Jan. 6. What’s not a news bulletin is that the formerly invisible Blackhawks have become prime time as they approach their third outdoor appearance. A once-forlorn franchise symbolic with Groundhog Day is now a staple of New Year’s Day.

Kris Versteeg, the only player to score at both Wrigley Field and Soldier Field, hailed the return of ailing Patrick Sharp because there will be “more girls in the stands.” Otherwise, Versteeg is fairly quiet so far. But, as they like to say in hockey, it’s early in the series.

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