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Heavy hearts for Blackhawks on way to Winter Classic

by Dan Rosen

The camera abruptly zoomed in on Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville's face, so close that you could see the tears that hadn't yet dropped out of the bottom of his eyelids. This was the picture of a man, not just a coach, dealing with the stark reality of life and death amidst the whirlwind of an NHL season.

Clint Reif, an unheralded member of the Blackhawks family as their assistant equipment manager, was found dead in his home Sunday morning. He was 34 years old.

Earlier in the week Reif was doing what he loved to do, preparing the equipment, the jerseys, pants, socks, skates, everything, alone at United Center while the Blackhawks attended a season-ticket holder function at Navy Pier.

The EPIX cameras were with Reif while he worked. He dished on players, providing some insight into the inner workings of the Blackhawks and the personalities that made work never feel like work.

Then Reif was suddenly gone, so Quenneville had to stand in front of the media and talk about his loss prior to Chicago's game Sunday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. His eyes welled up while he stood at the podium. He was a picture of shock and sadness.

Nobody wanted the final scene of the second episode of "EPIX Presents Road to the NHL Winter Classic" to ever take place, but it shows what sports reality TV should be about -- real life intersecting with a game, lives being impacted, tears being shed, family and friendship.

EPIX captured the dark moment in a respectful and impactful way.

"Tough day," Quenneville says into the microphone. "Great guy."

Fade to black. Fade to a picture of Reif. Fade to the credits. No music. No words. Just silence.

Everyone knew the road the Blackhawks and Washington Capitals would take to the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day would be paved with high moments and low moments, wins and losses, injuries, adversity and elation. Nobody thought it would include grieving.

But this series does it all, and adjusts with the ever-changing emotions of these teams. Before the second episode tugged at your heartstrings, it showed you the truths of winning and losing, teamwork and toughness, and the reality that is life in the National Hockey League.

There were memorable light-hearted moments, such as the family skates for the Blackhawks and Capitals, when Washington defenseman Karl Alzner put his four-day old daughter into a wagon on the ice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. At United Center in Chicago, we saw Blackhawks forward Daniel Carcillo jokingly say Bryan Bickell's daughter Michaela looks like him.

Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin proved he can be a man of the people when he and teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov attended a Washington Wizards game at Verizon Center and opted to sit courtside instead of in a suite. Ovechkin went searching through the concourse looking for an ice cream stand. He found one, waited on line, and purchased three cones, two chocolate and one vanilla.

We got to meet Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw, who is affectionately known as "The Mutt" for his uncanny ways of getting under your skin by running his mouth and never holding back.

"He doesn't shut up," Chicago forward Kris Versteeg said. "I mean, ever."

"You want him on your team," Bickell said. "You'd hate to play against him."

Shaw continued to show his affable personality at the Blackhawks' annual holiday party, when he sat on Santa's lap wearing an ugly Christmas sweater that read "FRUIT CAKE" and asked for a hat trick.

There was more of Capitals rookies Tom Wilson and Michael Latta, roommates who were featured in the first episode. This time, they're shown at a restaurant in Columbus on an off day talking about how pickles are made and the movie Interstellar.

Joel Ward ripping on Latta for ordering a salad with a bun-less hamburger is one of those priceless moments, only because of his laugh.

There were unforgettable moments on the ice too, such as Washington's historic 20-round shootout at the Florida Panthers. The camera positioned behind the Capitals bench was able to capture the emotion of being in what became the longest shootout in NHL history.

"I'm running out of guys," Capitals coach Barry Trotz could be heard saying on the bench.

He told Latta it was his turn, and had to follow it up by saying, "No, I'm not [expletive] lying."

A pair of Blackhawks coming back from injury provided the swings in emotion players go through while they work to get back on the ice.

Corey Crawford appeared frustrated that the cameras greeted him following a practice. Patrick Sharp was open to talking about returning after a month-long absence, but his frustration with how he was playing in his first four games appeared to anger his teammates.

"Can he be happy any time soon?" Bickell said to Marian Hossa on the bench. "Good thoughts make good [expletive] things happen."

Sharp scored not long after Bickell expressed his frustration with Sharp's frustration. Bickell was one of the first to say something to him.

"Shooter, you're a [expletive] God."

There is talk of the standings. Early in the show, Quenneville brings up the fact that Chicago can leap into first place with a win, and later on Trotz mentions to the Capitals that they were one point out of a Stanley Cup Playoff berth.

The segment showing the demotion of Chicago goalie Scott Darling to Rockford of the American Hockey League is a perfect juxtaposition to the segment on Chicago's holiday party that preceded it.

Highs and lows.

But the end is when the game is forgotten and the realities of life and death, realities we all deal with every day in our lives, come to the forefront.

Reif's death was felt like a hammer going through a nail around Blackhawks headquarters. It was crushing and still is. But now their grieving is part of the long, winding, unpredictable and unforgettable road they are traveling toward Nationals Park and the Winter Classic.


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