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Road to the 2020 Winter Classic Episode 2: Tornadoes and Refugees

The Winter Classic is the only regular-season meeting that is given its own narrative. Take a look at how the NHL is setting the plot for the Nashville Predators versus the Dallas Stars.

2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic - Rink Build Out Photo by Sam Hodde/NHLI via Getty Images

WARNING: If you haven’t watched the second episode of Road to the 2020 Winter Classic, this will spoil it for you.

Still reading? Ok, let’s go.

The episode opens with a quiet moment between father and son as Juuse Saros shows Pekka Rinne (not his actual father) the paint job he’s designed for his Winter Classic mask. Each side of the mask pays tribute to one of the Finns that has contributed to the history of Nashville Predators. The left side features Pekka Rinne and the left side shows Kimmo Timonen.

It is quite interesting to see this juxtaposition of generations. Pekka Rinne, 37, was 15 years old when the Predators started their first season. Juuse Saros, on the other hand, was 3 years old. Saros’s knowledge of the NHL would have always involved the Predators, especially considering Saros has reminisced on watching Pekka Rinne while growing up. It it definitely a tender moment as Pekka Rinne, whether he is aware of it or not, is reminded of the huge role he’s played in the heritage of this team and, in a sense, is reminded that he’s in the twilight of his career.

Next up, we get some more establishing shots of Rick Bowness with his collar up. He’s certainly being presented in a different light than Peter Laviolette. The director seems to be intent on making him look like a dynamic fresh face for the team. This is kind of surprising, considering the team wasn’t necessarily in trouble and had already taken the step of hiring a new coach to get them out of a bad spot. Montgomery wasn’t fired due to team performance and Bowness is an interim head coach. It would make more sense to me, if I were the director, to focus on Bowness as someone who’s been thrust into this role unexpectedly. Instead, they are framing him up to be a conquering hero. Just seems like an odd choice to me.

A new theme that is introduced in this episode is the October tornado that ripped through Dallas and devastated communities. The first mention of that comes as goaltender Ben Bishop travels to bring some cheer to a family that lost their home. The family has two sons that are goalies, so Bishop arrives to bring them Winter Classic jerseys and take them to practice with him to block some shots from Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. We don’t see this trip to practice, but it’s quite funny when one of the boys has no clue who Bishop is. The other, of course, calls him “the best goalie ever”. Just a nice reminder that hockey players tend to have relative anonymity in the South.

The episode transitions back to Nashville to show Mattias Ekholm and his fiancée Ida Bjornstad running the hockey program they recently started to help change hockey culture in Nashville by introducing hockey and skating to children who may have never skated before. As someone familiar with the program, I will note that the program is offered free of charge and all equipment is provided. This is a new theme that is introduced for Nashville in this episode—the concept of expanding hockey fandom throughout the region. And, realistically, this an issue for both teams.

The biggest difference between the Predators and the Stars is that Nashville, a non-traditional hockey market, got an expansion team that had to suffer through all the regular expansion team woes (pre-Vegas, that is) while Dallas, a non-traditional hockey market, got an established team formerly known as the Minnesota North Stars that experienced quite a bit of success very soon after arriving in Dallas. Regardless, both cities’ sports markets are dominated by football teams, in the Dallas Cowboys and the Tennessee Titans.

Next, we see Joe Pavelski taking his nine-year-old son, Nate, to hockey practice withe U10 Dallas Elite. The father and son joke about having a goal-scoring competition with the loser getting a pie in the face. The nine-year-old skaters are quite impressive and Pavelski clearly enjoys helping coach the kids when he can. He mentions that being a part of the youth hockey team helped his son’s transition to Dallas after living his entire life in San Jose.

Continuing with the Stars, we get to visit with John Klingberg, his fiancée Fanny Hammarstrand, and his father Anders Klingberg. John and Fanny got engaged the same night as the previously mentioned tornado. And, it should be noted, her engagement ring is as big as a human eyeball. We then see the trio playing pool on an undersized table (or maybe Fanny’s ring just makes it look small) where Anders runs the table while explaining he initially suggested John play defense because he was small.

The episode transitions to Boston as the Predators are in town to face the Bruins. Filip Forsberg and Mattias Ekholm are shown walking by a frozen pond where kids in Bruins jerseys skate. No one notices the professional hockey players walking and being filmed nearby. Forsberg talks about wanting revenge at the Winter Classic for the recent (and embarrassing) loss at home to the Dallas Stars. In addition to their desire for revenge, both Swedes are excited to take part in the outdoor game.

It’s game night in Boston. During the second intermission, Peter Laviolette is talking the team about the “in-tight chances” they’ve had and that he wants to see more of them because they are going to work. What is most shocking to me is that I’ve been publicly complaining about the Laviolette system of high-volume, low-quality shots for weeks, yet here he is, praising high-danger shots and begging for more. After his talk, which is brief and not motivational, there is clapping from the room—clapping I would compare to the kind of cursory clapping you’d expect after a particularly bad karaoke performance. And sure enough, what wins the game? A pass from Ryan Johansen behind the net to Ryan Ellis in-tight for a game-winning goal in overtime. After the game, Craig Smith gives “the hat” to Ryan Ellis, who looks majestic with a mullet and beard combination.

Back home in Nashville, we visit Austin Watson, his fiancée Jen Guardino, and their daughter Olivia as they sit in her room, playing with a toy set of golf clubs. Watson talks about how he never understood why his teammates had such a hard time going on the road when they had to leave their families behind. Now, with Olivia, he has come full circle and understands the difficulties his teammates experienced. The couple also discusses how exciting it is for Olivia to see him on the ice during warm ups and how much Watson enjoys coming over to see her before the game starts—clearly, his favorite pregame tradition.

However, today, Watson is not headed to the arena for a game, but for a holiday party. If you’ve been to Bridgestone Arena and have seen the banners that display the players’ charity programs, you’ve seen that Watson and Colton Sissons are involved in something called Holiday Outreach. This party is the culminating event of their work. You’ve probably seen Sissons and Watson shopping for presents, but this is what they were shopping for. It’s a Christmas party for the children of refugees that have relocated to Nashville. This is incredible to me, in a good way, considering how much of a hot-button issue immigration and refugees can be in this area.

Many of these children have never been on the ice before and Watson goes out of his way to put on a good time for the children, insisting that he wear the elf costume WITH bells for the party. Sissons wears a Predators holiday jersey, clearly identifying him as a hockey player, but Watson has foregone such identification and is simply a tall elf with fewer visible teeth. He interacts with the kids and one asks what happened to his teeth. He responds, “I got hit in the face with a puck”. One of the children follows up by making a gesture of getting punched in the face and he laughs and says, “somebody did that to me, too, but my teeth were already gone”.

Both of them enjoy the party and the interactions with the kids, but the moment that lingers in my head is one in which a young boy opens a pair of shoes. As he unwraps the package, we see that they are Vans—however, when he realized what they are, he is not excited that they are Vans, but ecstatic that he got shoes. This drives home the reality that these children are facing and illustrates the massive impact that this party has had for them.

The show winds down by returning to the Stars and shows Bowness watching game film on the Calgary Flames. The scene changes to the locker room before the game. Bowness is filmed from a low angle, making him look impressive and dynamic as he speaks to the team before the game begins. There really seems to be a massive effort on the behalf of the producers to build Bowness up when his record as a head coach is less than underwhelming. Of course, the Stars lose.

The episode closes with shots of players from both teams enjoying their holiday break which includes what can best be described as “Swedish Christmas” with Calle Järnkrok and Viktor Arvidsson. The next episode will come after the Winter Classic is over. I’m looking forward to see if the narrative they have been making for Bowness plays out or if the Predators can pull it all together to win the Winter Classic.