If the NHL were to rank its annual events by importance, it’s fair to guess the Winter Classic would come in second right behind the Stanley Cup Final — and it might be closer than we think.
The league puts a ton of effort into promoting the event, including the ongoing TV efforts in the weeks leading up to the contest. Nothing will ever top HBO’s “24-7” series, but the NHL’s in-house effort, “Road to the Winter Classic,” remains an entertaining watch nonetheless.
That was the case for Boston Bruins fans who could follow the lead-up to the Jan. 1 game against the Chicago Blackhawks at Notre Dame in the first two episodes of the series. The finale, covering the final days of preparation and the game itself (which the Bruins won 4-2), aired Tuesday night on NHL Network.
You can also watch the entire episode, but here are some of the highlights, takeaways and observations from a Bruins-centric perspective.
— The weather leading up to the Winter Classic is always a focal point, and this year was no different. The game itself actually had perfect weather, but that wasn’t the case in the days prior to the game. Boston landed in South Bend a couple of days before the game, allowing players to get a look at the stadium.
Tuukka Rask, Kevan Miller and Torey Krug got a look at Notre Dame Stadium on a sun-soaked Dec. 30 afternoon, right around the time the second period would be going on, and let’s just say the NHL got lucky the sun stayed away on New Year’s Day.
That led to this interaction:
Rask: “What time is it now? Second period? How are you supposed to see?”
Krug: “You just close your eyes and hope. You just hope, buddy. You don’t need to see. You’re a goalie.”
Miller asked Rask if he’d entertain the idea of wearing sunglasses under his mask for the game.
“I might have to,” Rask said with more seriousness than you might expect.
— The entire experience seemed like a great one for Krug, who grew up in the Midwest, a Michigan native who attended and played college hockey at Michigan State. Despite a handful of appearances on the Notre Dame campus to play the Fighting Irish, Krug’s first chance to lay eyes on “Touchdown Jesus” came on this trip to South Bend.
He also couldn’t help but snap a few photos inside the famous stadium.
— The worst part about the weather that week was the rain on New Year’s Eve. Typically, the day before the game is a chance for players and their families to get on the ice for practice and a family skate. It poured all day, and that forced teams to stay inside and do their work at the Irish’s rink. Bruins captain Zdeno Chara and head coach Bruce Cassidy were caught discussing that during B’s practice with both ultimately downplaying the effect it might have.
But again, from a family standpoint, it must have been a bummer to have the get-together inside, but it certainly didn’t look that way. Players (including the suspended David Backes) spilled onto the ice with their friends and families, leading to countless photo ops.
Chara, who was playing in his third Winter Classic, made the trip without his wife and kids this time around, allowing him to take on another role in addition to shut-down defenseman and captain. He served as the unofficial photographer.
“I went solo this time so it’s easier for me to take the videos and try to help out some other families to have great memories,” he said.”
He then smiled look a goofball, and it was hilarious.
— Chara was one of the stars of the show, on and off the ice. It was fun to see how the 41-year-old interacts with his teammates. He’s been in the NHL almost as long as some of his younger teammates have been alive, but he showed a few times how he’s still able to relate to the rest of the guys in the dressing room.
He might also have a future as a boom mic operator — his height and length certainly would help.
— Of course, there was actually hockey business to address, and few figures came across better in the entire episode than Cassidy, who seemed sharp, engaging and totally in touch with his team at all times.
It was also fascinating to get a look behind the curtain at the actual strategy of hockey. Maybe we’re not asking the right questions, but all too often, hockey speak as dispersed through the media centers on intangible cliches like grit and determination or the simplistic ideas like “getting the puck deep” or the ultimate importance of “getting in on the forecheck.”
So for those wanting to learn more about the X’s and O’s, it helped to pay attention when Cassidy spoke to his team at the New Year’s Eve practice, going over his mental notes on Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith.
“Duncan Keith will jump everywhere,” Cassidy noted. “Otherwise, they’re fairly passive. Expect on the draw if he lines up here on the left D, he’ll attack. He’ll attack up the half-wall on a normal play, so there is some backdoor plays when he’s on the ice. He’s pretty aggressive, pretty quick and plays to his strengths.”
The next day, in a pregame meeting with his coaching staff and players like Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Jake DeBrusk, Cassidy went over some video and reiterated the game plan.
“Deep drive, that’s where they contest the D a little bit lower,” Cassidy explained. “Maybe top of the circle. (Keith is) pretty aggressive, right? (Keith), he’s going to try to challenge all over the ice, so … he’s quick, got a good stick, competes, but there are a few goals here where if we’re ready for it, we can expose it. Guys you’ll see a lot — Keith, Seabrook — that play will be there, you guys run it well, so just make sure you’re ready for it Jake on the back post.”
Cassidy predicted Chicago would try to take away Bergeron, believing it might ultimately lead to opportunities for DeBrusk, instructing the young winger to “sharpen his stick” and be ready. DeBrusk didn’t score but he tied for a game-high five shots.
“I don’t know if you guys know, we have the Peaky Blinders theme. So that’s my kind of look,” Chara said.
Good to know.
— The biggest difference between “24/7” and this iteration is the in-game footage. This is a much more family-friendly product with much less mic’d-up game sound, so that’s kind of a bummer. It was cool to hear the referee remind Bergeron and Jonathan Toews “let’s have some fun here.”
— Speaking of Toews: All-time great hockey player but borderline terrifying facial expressions.
— Again, not a lot within the actual game, but Bergeron’s second-period heroics were even more impressive with some inspirational music playing the background.
— In regards to Bergeron’s play — the game-saving back-check that ultimately led to a power-play goal — he got plenty of love from his coach and teammates.
“That’s a great effort by Bergy on the back-check, saved a goal,” Cassidy said behind the bench. “Let’s work off that.”
It’s clear to see why Bergeron is regarded and respected as such a leader. When you’re able to get your best player to buy in with that level of commitment, it’s pretty easy to get everyone else to fall in line. Cassidy again noted the play during intermission, and Sean Kuraly lauded Bergeron’s “Selke back-check” before awarding him player of the game honors after the game in the B’s dressing room.
— Not for nothing, Cassidy’s message to his team during the second intermission was an interesting glimpse into how he delivers messages to his team.
“It wasn’t our best, we know that, but there’s reasons you gotta fix it,” he said. “If you’re sitting on the bench for a little while, this is part of this game. The outdoor elements. You’ve got to mentally battle through it and when it’s your turn to go, you’ve got to give us what you got and get the motor running early, right? It’s just the way it is today. They’re going through some of the same stuff we are.”
Boston then outscored Chicago 2-0 in the third to win the game.
— The win led to a jubilant celebration on the bench and in the room, with Cassidy also using his postgame speech to thank defenseman Brandon Carlo for the fedora.
“Good win, fellas. We came here to have a good experience. That’s part of it, create some memories for us first-timers. For guys that it’s old hat like Z and Bergy, well, for us it’s our first, so good win, men,” he said.
“And Brando, thanks for the hat. Someone said I actually looked sharp. I don’t know if I believe that, but thanks. I hope your families had a good time, fellas. It’s a great experience. Good win, men. Well done.”
— Cassidy eventually gave way to Bergeron, who seemingly like an older brother or even a father, gave the rest of the team his blessing to enjoy the flight back to Boston.
“Boys, I know it’s only a regular-season win, but how good does it feel? Have fun on the way back home!”
— Finally, Marchand summed up the entire experience pretty well.
“You try to take in every minute of the whole thing and you hope that you can remember it all, but the excitement on the guys’ faces after the game and in the room, those are the things you’re going to remember.”
Thumbnail photo via Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports Images