The countdown for the Winter Classic is officially underway.
The Rangers strolled into Lasker Rink at Central Park on a brisk, 47-degree Saturday afternoon for an outdoor practice in front of hundreds of fans in preparation for their New Year’s Day game against the Buffalo Sabres at Citi Field.
“It’s about a month away but it’s going to come up quick here,” said Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh. “It’s good for goalies, or some of the guys who have not played in an outdoor game to get to play outside like this and get a taste of the sun in your eyes, the glare, all that stuff that you face come game time. So it’s a great experience.”
It was the first time the Rangers have practiced in Central Park since the 2003-04 season, when the Mark Messier-led team laced up the skates at Wollman Rink.
The Rangers, fresh off a 5-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes the night before, filed onto compact-sized, Donald Trump-owned rink sporting their blue and white Winter Classic practice jerseys.
Players engaged in some friendly banter with fans while a chorus of “Let’s Go Rangers” chants rang out during 2-on-1 and 3-on-2 drills.
“It’s a little more fun,” Jimmy Vesey said. “The rink is not actually the same dimensions that we’re used to, so it was a little tricky, but it was a great day, definitely.”
Vesey in particular had a unique experience before he even arrived at the park.
The 24-year-old winger joined Kevin Hayes and Brady Skjei on a subway ride up to practice while dressed in their full Rangers gear.
“It was actually pretty cool,” said Vesey. “We had a couple of Ranger fans, we saw them and brought them in the car with us so it was cool.”
The Rangers have become accustom to playing in outdoor games in recent years and have had success, too.
They defeated the Flyers, 3-2, in their first Winter Classic appearance in 2012 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and beat the Devils and Islanders at Yankee Stadium in 2014 as part of the NHL’s Stadium Series.
Yet McDonagh, who played in all three of those games, has always wished the Rangers could have held an outdoor practice in Central Park prior to those experiences.
“Some of the road teams have gotten to do this before and I think you kind of wish you gotten that opportunity,” he said. “I don’t think until we’re finished here, you kind of turn around and realize where you’re at: You’re right in the heart of New York City.”
The Rangers captain hopes it is something the team can do every year.
“Maybe we can keep it a tradition, at least once a year like this,” he said. “Whether we’re at the Winter Classic or an outdoor game or not, it’s a great experience for fans to come from all over and show up here. It’s a great experience and a lot of fun.”
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