There are stops along the road to the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic that show the true identity and personality of the players and coaches involved. These are stops that go beyond hockey, off the ice, into their homes, their private lives.
Hockey players for the most part like to be seen as ordinary people who can do extraordinary things. Around Christmas their extraordinary gifts melt away as family life takes over and they become ordinary people doing ordinary things with holiday traditions that are no grander than those of the average working family.
The third episode of "EPIX Presents Road to the NHL Winter Classic" brings the viewer in touch with the people many of these athletes and coaches are away from the game.
The viewer got to spend Christmas with Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and his family in Vail, Col., with Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz and his family at their home in Clarendon, Va., with Joel Ward and his girlfriend in New York City, and with Troy Brouwer and his wife and 2-year-old daughter in their home. Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson served as the viewer's host at his Swedish Christmas celebration.
In addition, Alex Ovechkin opened his home to the cameras, and we got a slice of his home life at a dinner prepared by his mother and attended by Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov and his wife. We learn that Ovechkin calls his parents before every game just to hear their voices.
Quenneville and his wife, Elizabeth, bought a home in Vail a few years ago so it could be a gathering place for his family, including their kids Dylan, Lily and Anna. They have a tradition of going out for a Christmas Eve dinner and hitting the slopes on Christmas Day.
The Blackhawks coach jokes that it's like the Quennevilles meeting the Griswolds for Christmas.
Through the lens, though, EPIX successfully shows a different, softer, looser side of Quenneville as he spends the holiday with his family. He jokes about how he goes slow and steady on the slopes and is just worried about keeping up with his kids.
"He's always stopping to rest," Anna says of her dad, "and after he always needs an Advil because he's sore."
Trotz put his softer, family side on display earlier in the series when he was shown taking his wife, Kim, and son Nolan to the National Zoo. Christmas with the Trotzes was different because the entire family, including older kids Tiana, Tyson and Shalan, had flown in from Nashville to spend the holiday season with mom, dad and brother Nolan.
Barry and Kim make homemade pierogis and let Nolan open a few gifts on Christmas Eve. Barry jokes that he knows there will be coal in his stocking.
The Capitals played their final game before the holiday break against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, so Ward stayed in New York with his girlfriend, Kathleen, for Christmas. They were shown people-watching and skating at Rockefeller Center.
Ward makes it a point to say that his time with Kathleen allows him to take the focus off of hockey, because the last thing she wants is for him to talk hockey in her ear all the time.
Brouwer talked about getting some downtime with his family as he made gingerbread cookies with his daughter. Hjalmarsson brought a taste of his heritage to Chicago with eight different types of herrings and meatballs serving as the featured attractions for the big gathering.
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The settings of those Christmas celebrations were built around hard work at the rink.
The episode begins with the emotional win the Blackhawks got against the Toronto Maple Leafs one day after assistant equipment trainer Clint Reif died. Captain Jonathan Toews talked about disbelief, but the message was on moving on, moving forward.
Back in Washington, the Capitals just finished off a 2-1 win against the Ottawa Senators at Verizon Center, but Trotz isn't happy, telling his team in an expletive-laden postgame speech that how they played was not good enough.
Washington went to New York the next night and lost 4-2, but Trotz seemed happier as he told the Capitals, who trailed 3-0 in the first period, after the game that they showed what they can do when they put on the work boots.
"This is a team we are going to pass," Trotz says of the Rangers. "I'm going to tell you right now, we're going to pass them."
In dismissing the Capitals for the holiday break, Trotz leaves them one final message.
"I wish you guys a good Christmas, enjoy the time, and when we get back we're going to do something special," he said.
Quenneville had to dismiss Chicago for the break after a 5-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. He admits after the game that the emotional roller coaster the Blackhawks were on following Reif's death might have caught up to them, but he tells them to throw the game in the garbage and come back fresh.
Each team put an exclamation point on its return from the holiday break with a big road win. Washington defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0; Chicago won 5-2 against the Colorado Avalanche.
The third episode ends with a story about how hockey players are mirror images of one another, of how winning is what unites them, of how no matter what they do or where they play, the game never changes. The story is told with visuals of the ongoing rink build at Nationals Park. The underlying meaning is clear -- the game will be taken outdoors Thursday, but the stakes remain the same as the pucks, sticks, helmets and skates the players will be wearing.
As the finish line on this road to the NHL Winter Classic nears, the people involved become even bigger to the story of the signature event on the League's regular-season calendar. The third episode of the EPIX series allows us to see them for who they truly are, stripped of the pads, the helmets and the competition that fuels them. It allows us to see ordinary people capable of doing extraordinary things living what amount to ordinary lives just like the rest of us.