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'Road to Winter Classic' opens with tuneup game

by Jon Lane

At first glance, nothing was different about the usual routine of equipment staff unloading and unpacking bags belonging to players representing the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins.

On the surface, it was another regular-season NHL game, but this was different. It was the 909th game in a rivalry that began on Dec. 8, 1924, and the final time the Canadiens and Bruins would compete before playing in the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

The first episode of "EPIX Presents Road to the NHL Winter Classic" opened explaining why every minute detail mattered before puck drop on Dec. 9 at Bell Centre. The way Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban put it, there are certain games circled during an 82-game season, and Montreal-Boston is one of them. Bruins forward Brad Marchand took it a step further: It's not just about earning two points against an Atlantic Division opponent. The intent is to not only win, but to embarrass them.

The stakes of this particular game were extremely high for one not even at the halfway point of the season. Though the Bruins entered at 14-6-3 after an 0-3-0 start, they were losers of seven straight to the Canadiens. Goalie Tuukka Rask's 13 first-period saves were wholly responsible for keeping the Bruins within 1-0 heading into the locker room, which had EPIX cameras catching an angry coach Claude Julien demanding his players to show some pride.

Boston scored three goals in the third period to end their losing streak against Montreal, which reduced Canadiens coach Michel Therrien to telling reporters more than once, "We had a tough night." Months of hockey were yet to be played, but the Canadiens' road to the Winter Classic was beginning with a test of character.

The night after the loss to Boston, the Canadiens visited the Detroit Red Wings. Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher was getting treatment on two broken fingers that have kept him out a month and placed his chances of playing in the Winter Classic in doubt.

Injuries to Gallagher and goalie Carey Price, the Hart and Vezina trophy winner last season, had the Canadiens just above .500 since a 9-0-0 start to this season. A 3-2 loss to the Red Wings extended their season-high losing streak to four games and led to a quiet bus ride to the charter that would take them back to Montreal for another gut-check game against the Ottawa Senators.

Back in Boston, the scene shifted to a mild morning when Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron is walking with his wife Stephanie and 8-week-old son Zack. Boston is lauded as a city of character, one where defenseman Zdeno Chara shows how he's one with the people while walking through his North End neighborhood. Chara's stops include a visit to his barber and a deli, where he orders an Italian sandwich.

Chara is captain of the Bruins. He is the rock of the defense who won the Norris Trophy in 2009 and the Stanley Cup in 2011. He takes in the fame that comes with his accomplishments, stopping for photographs and conversation with onlookers while making the rounds, but deep down he's your average Joe.

"I'm just a regular guy," Chara said. "I don't consider myself anything more or less than anybody else."

Chara may not play the part of a famous NHL hockey player, but Subban embraces it. He is another Norris Trophy winner who won a gold medal playing for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. During a day off, Subban is using the Winter Classic platform to display what he calls his passion for fashion by designing and trying on parts of a three-piece suit he'll wear to Foxborough, which he said will be inspired by Canadiens legends who came before him.

"The suits are all about wearing it with confidence," Subban said. "You have to like it. You have to feel comfortable in it. I'm not a diva, I just like to look good."

It's a Saturday afternoon in Boston, before the Bruins are about to play the Florida Panthers, when they are visited by Milt Schmidt, a Hockey Hall of Fame member who at 97 is the oldest living person to have played for the Bruins. The current Bruins responded with a 3-1 win, their third in four games.

Saturday was "Hockey Night in Canada," a ritual that quiets Montreal's streets and packs Bell Centre. After the Canadiens took 27 shots on goal in the first period and built a 2-0 lead, the scene shifted to the arena rafters to introduce organist Diane Bibeau, who's been with the Canadiens for almost 30 years, since the days of the Montreal Forum, a job she likens to playing in a church.

"This team is just part of my blood, it's rewarding," Bibeau said. "There is no salary. It's like an artist or a hockey player. They have to play to live, then the pay comes after. But that's the second thing. To be happy, that's what it is."

The episode closes with the Canadiens ending their four-game losing streak with a 3-1 victory against the Senators followed by images of players from each team spending time with their families. The narrative explains how hockey in each city is like home, and how you won't find anything that feels more like home than the game itself.

Two cities with teams that each pack a rich hockey history, each taking their first steps on the road to the Winter Classic.


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