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Capitals, Blackhawks start road to NHL Winter Classic

by Corey Masisak

Tom Wilson and Michael Latta live together in an apartment in Northern Virginia, and some college students would be surprised at the minimalist nature of their bachelor pad.

At some point in Brad Richards' career, if only for a brief time, he probably lived in a place like that. He, his wife and their 2-month old child now live in one of Chicago's signature skyscrapers, with a stunning view of one of America's largest cities and Lake Michigan from their living room.

The first episode of "EPIX Presents Road to the NHL Winter Classic" begins and ends with the road, and the idea that the journey is as important as the destination. Richards, a veteran of 1,013 NHL games and a Conn Smythe Trophy winner, knows about the road an NHL player must traverse.

Wilson and Latta represent a juxtaposition to Richards; the eager young players hoping to forge a path to NHL success. In that way, they also represent their teams, and how the new inside look from EPIX at the franchises as they prepare for the NHL's signature regular-season event could be shaped.

The Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup twice in the past five seasons. Though Richards is a new guy on the team, there is continuity and a championship pedigree in Chicago that is the envy of much of the NHL. Chicago is a well-oiled machine, and the first episode of "Road to the NHL Winter Classic" shows how coach Joel Quenneville trusts his team because he knows what it's capable of but also prods the group when it is needed.

The Capitals want what the Blackhawks have. They were one of the top contenders, but a recent multiyear slide has left Washington trying to regain its status among the League's elite. The Capitals are still chasing that first championship.

Washington has a new coach, Barry Trotz. It has a new goaltending guru, Mitch Korn. The Capitals also have familiar faces Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and owner Ted Leonsis.

This first episode is a lot about building relationships for the Capitals. Trotz is trying to instill his brand of hockey and trying to develop the kind of trust Quenneville has with his star players.

Korn, who basically lives out of his car during the season, is trying to build a bond with a young goaltender full of potential but short on recent performance, Braden Holtby. When the Capitals were part of HBO's "24/7" series in 2011, Ovechkin and Backstrom were young, carefree and had so much of their NHL careers in front of them.

Now they are veterans and leaders in the Washington dressing room. Leonsis spoke of the long list of individual awards players like Ovechkin and Backstrom have accumulated, but the "team and community" award of winning the Stanley Cup has become everyone's singular focus.

The first episode of the four-part series catches each team during a peak in the early season. Chicago extended a winning streak to eight games, and Washington won three straight games away from Verizon Center.

The best "inside hockey" segment was a look at the meeting room when Washington assistant coach Blaine Forsythe went over video with one of the League's premier power-play units.

The best laughs come from a couple of sources who are certain to be more involved as the series progresses. Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw, who famously celebrated a Stanley Cup victory with a stitched-up wound still bleeding in 2013, joined Bryan Bickell, who had a rough night the day before, in the trainer's room. Shaw's chirping about Bickell's battle scars combined well with Bickell's taunts about Shaw's new haircut.

On the other side, Washington forwards Jason Chimera and Joel Ward are close friends and court jesters for the Capitals, so one simple conversation in the dressing room before practice was just a glimpse of their comedic candor.

"What are you reading? The pictures?" Chimera said to Ward, who was reading a newspaper. "Hmm? Reading the pictures?"

"I've got a four-year college degree [Chimera]," replied Ward, a proud University of Prince Edward Island alum. "I'm the smartest guy in this room."

When an off-camera teammate was impressed by Ward's assertion of his academic credentials, Chimera scoffed.

"[In] home economics."

The most touching moments came at the National Zoo in Washington, where Trotz took his wife and son for the day, and in Richards' picturesque home high above the Chicago skyline. Trotz's son, Nolan, has Down syndrome, and narrator Bill Camp notes that he isn't "one of those coaches whose life is all about just hockey."

Richards and his wife Rechelle are adjusting to a new city and being parents to Luca. She points out that their "big" Christmas tree is actually a rosemary bush.

"That's what happens when the Aussie picks the Christmas tree," Richards said of his Australian-born wife.

The episode closes with a montage of Ovechkin and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, two superstars who figure to feature prominently through the series. Toews, with a long-term contract in hand, hopes to continue on the road to more championships with the Blackhawks.

Ovechkin, with a new coach but the same high expectations, wants to join Toews on that road.

"The best are the best not just because what they can do on skates with a bent stick, but because they care about it more than anyone else," Camp said. "Because they want it more than anyone else. Because they understand it is the road where they'll find the answers to just about everything."

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