First Road to the Winter Classic Episode Shows it Needs Cable to Thrive

Expectations for this year’s version of Road to the Winter Classic needed to be tempered right from the get-go. The transition from Epix to NBC Sports was going to dull the product a bit as you’d expect when switching to basic cable from a premium network.

Even with the understanding that the NBCSN version of what Epix inherited from HBO is going to be diluted, the first episode failed to deliver many thought provoking insights from either the Sabres or the Rangers.

The first episode wades through the typical introductions and scene setting you’d expect. We get bite sized tidbits on Michael Grabner, Henrik Lundqvist while hearing from Alain Vigneault and Jimmy Vesey. Not Liev Schrieber then touches on Sabres veterans Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane before circling back with Buffalo mainstays Jason Pominville and Kyle Okposo. That’s right, second-year Sabre, Kyle Okposo is a mainstay.

Most of the Sabres off-ice action is focused on the team’s Bowl-A-Rama event where Zach Bogosian and Okposo are able to show some personality. The highlight of the segment being when Okposo has his bowling ball slip out of his hands. You can save your “he’s as bad at bowling as he is at hockey” jokes, I’m certain I’ve heard/seen them all.

Jack Eichel gets a bit of camera time as well, reflecting on his role with the team and the struggles they’ve faced this year. In perhaps one of the best fly on the wall portions of the episode, Eichel is miked up for a post practice speech in which the “very lazy and immature” player calls on his teammates to stay committed and keep working.

In an upset, NBCSN devoted a large amount of screen time to American players. They follow Kevin Hayes, Brady Skjei and Jimmy Vesey on the subway to practice, stay with Bogosian and Okposo during Bowl-A-Rama and then chat with Eichel, Kevin Shattenkirk and American for international play, Jason Pominville. I too was surprised each player’s lower third didn’t include their junior club, college and youth association teams.

Kidding aside, I can’t fault NBCSN for sticking to their guns with that strategy. They’re trying to sell the game in the United States, so highlighting American players is an obvious and expected tack.

There are only so many US born players to go around between the two teams and with a star like Henrik Lundqvist on one side, you know the US focus won’t last for the entire series. So long as the players they choose to highlight provide some interesting insights, it doesn’t matter to me which national team they suit up for. Pominville’s segment, for example, was far more illustrative than Rick Nash’s. Nash’s portion of the show seemed overly sterile while Pominville’s certainly showed some more personality as the story about his son’s request for a signed stick from not just Patrick Kane but Jonathan Towes too (NBCSN Blackhawks reference achieved!) was a cool anecdote.

Still, we’re a far cry from the halcyon days of HBO’s 24/7 series and the joys that it brought. The HBO series lost some of its luster after the first couple of iterations as teams and players realized what they needed to hide from the cameras and the final series in 2014 was dry as a result. But the thing the HBO and Epix editions allowed for was a more open view of the locker room and team dynamics.

It’s very obvious that NBCSN is taking every step possible to cull profanity and vulgarity from the show. Thus is the drawback of basic cable. While a baker’s dozen f-bombs aren’t necessary to make the show watchable, cutting that aspect out of pregame, intermission or postgame segments eliminates so much of what made this show appointment television. A lot of people point to Boudreau’s locker room rant or Bryzgalov’s humangous big sound byte, but I think the clip that illustrates what made this show so great is Pascal Dupuis entering the Penguins facility in the first 24/7 series:

Bonus points here go to Bylsma’s post-drill conversation with his team. Those 30 seconds paint an awesome picture of the Penguins locker room. The rapport between players and the way practice is conducted. We’re only one episode in, but the only view of Housley’s demeanor at practice was reduced to imploring his players to push their pace. Perhaps that was the best he had to offer from the past week, but it seems more likely that was one of the few clips suitable for air.

Josh Gorges’ locker room pep talk in St. Louis may illustrate my point better. Certainly a 14-year veteran lauded for his leadership and off-ice intangibles had a lot more to say than simply “there’s a lot of hockey left” and “keep grinding them”.

I worry that’s the type of stuff we as fans will lose with the switch to NBCSN. Even as the product watered down in 2014 and beyond, you still got an unparalleled insight into how these teams operate. The candid portions of the show were free of the clichéd press conference responses we’ve all grown tired of and replaced with eye opening snippets of how these players operate.

We saw a couple of pieces of this during last night’s episode. Eichel’s pep talk, Gorges’ even despite it appearing to be neutered a fair bit. The subway ride with Vesey, Hayes and Skjei even included a couple of interesting bits, including when one of the trio joked about what their coach would harp on in practice that day. I just doubt that we’ll get enough helpings of those aspects due to the constraints of programming on basic cable. I hope I’m wrong but I’m leery about what we’ll ultimately miss over the next few weeks.

Assorted Thoughts

  • The Rangers Winter Classic practice jerseys look pretty cool with the large crest on them. Here’s hoping the Sabres version uses the charging buffalo secondary logo.
  • Younger (and present day) me is extremely jealous of Jason Pominville’s basement and the shooting area he has set up for his son.
  • I bet $5 Sean McDermott is jealous of Jimmy Vesey’s hat
  • It was odd that the show didn’t use Buffalo’s play-by-play for the St. Louis game. Maybe it’s because the Blues won, so they wanted to use the more excited version of the audio.
  • Things have gone slightly better for the Sabres since the NBC cameras showed up but I wonder if they try to steer clear of the locker room and on-ice aspects given Buffalo’s struggles this year.
  • Considering both starting goalies are Swedish, I could go for an all-goalie episode before the series concludes.
  • Now that some of the housekeeping and introductory items are out of the way, I hope that the show digs in deeper with both teams, giving more inside looks than the first episode offered.

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