‘Cold air, an ice covered pond, and a few friends’ – the simplicity of hockey can often be masked by the raucous fights, bloody faces, and trash talking flashy players. Played annually on New Year’s Day, the Winter Classic is a celebration of the game that brings the sport back to the great outdoors. This year’s contest between the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers is being chronicled by HBO via their 24/7 production, The Road to the Winter Classic. In the theme of Hard Knocks, and narrated by Liev Sheiber, the series begins with a introduction worthy of a Stanley Cup itself with flashes of Rangers and Flyers faces as the pitfalls and triumphs of the sport of hockey are described. The intensity and raw passion seen on the player’s faces is gripping. Those that have played hockey, and those that have merely watched it can attest to the wear and tear that happens to a player’s mind and body over the course of a hockey career.
The two franchises have played each other nearly 300 times in their storied history, but this time it will be different. There might not be two teams that dislike each other as much as the Rangers and Flyers do. Bad blood and a crazed fan base makes this year’s contest worthy of a documentary series and that’s exactly what HBO has given us. This isn’t your standard E! reality show folks – this is a bonfire of vanities that pays respect to both the sport and the players who’s life’s goal is to touch NHL ice, and maybe someday – Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The premier doesn’t disappoint with scenes of off-ice commentary. The Ranger’s consummate Renaissance man Sean Avery goes from yelling ‘you fucking loser’ from the penalty box in one scene, to modeling a menswear line in the next. Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov pontificates on space, and earth’s insignificance compared to the larger solar system. ‘We think we have problems here? Don’t worry about it, be happy,” he muses. Between the 2 coaches, John Tortorella and Peter Laviolette, more F-bombs are dropped than on a Deadliest Catch boat during a storm. Though its Ranger’s captain Ryan Callahan that hails from a blue-collar background in Rochester, NY, HBO portrays the Flyers as the average man, heading to work each day to make a living. If the Philadelphia Flyers are the blue-collar ‘every man,’ the series start portrays the Rangers as a flashy counterpart – just like their home of New York City: bright flights, Fashion Avenue, and the celebrity that comes with playing on the world’s biggest stage.
The series also serves up some emotion, an undeniable testament to the ‘heart on my sleeve’ mentality of some of the players. The tears from Ryan Callahan’s grandmother as she watches her grandson play at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo. The almost child-like apology from Artem Anisimov when he is penalized for excessive celebration (Anisimov cocked his stick and thrust it outward like a rifle in the direction of the Flyer’s goalie) demonstrates the vulnerability of the league’s players when they’ve let down their teammates. These guys will do anything for their teammates - and when they feel they’ve let them down, with it comes the weight of the franchise on their shoulders.
‘Best laid plans have no place on the ice,’ the narrator concludes, after witnessing an hour of the improbable happenstance mixed with gritty determination that defines a National Hockey Leagueseason. The NHL doesn’t give us superstars in the same way that the NFL does. Not many of these guys are household names, but this is a rare glimpse in to two of hockey’s exhilarating franchises. Rangers and Flyers fans alike can look forward to more raw emotion from these two teams, both on the ice & off. Well done, HBO.