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December 29, 2017

Taking It Outside: Hockey At Its Purest

The Rangers, set to play in the New Year’s Day Winter Classic, have been pulled back to another time — when it was only about the puck, the ice, the cold and the snow.

Preparing for the NHL Winter Classic, the New York Rangers get accustomed to the elements with an outdoor practice at Lasker Rink in Central Park. (Photo: Rebecca Taylor/MSG Photos)

On the fiercest winter days, Ondrej Pavelec and his friends would sling their hockey equipment over their shoulders and make the walk to a misshapen pond and play until dark. With temperatures dropping below zero, and often playing through blowing snow or a freezing rain, the experience, he says, was “painful, not fun.”

But now, as the Rangers and Buffalo Sabres prepare for the 10th NHL Winter Classic on New Year’s Day at Citi Field, the goalie looks back on those cold, raw days growing up in Kladno in the Czech Republic, with a sense of joy.

“No matter what, we played,” he said. “After school, after practice, we played. It wasn’t fun at the time, but we were outside everyday. I was with my friends.”

For the Rangers, it will be their second appearance in the game, and for nearly two weeks a crew has been at work to bring a hockey rink to a baseball stadium, a task requiring science and art. After laying down the rink 15 inches off the field and stretching from in back of where home plate would be and into the outfield, the challenge is to maintain the surface of the ice no matter the weather come New Year’s Day. A 300-ton capacity refrigerator, placed behind the outfield wall is counted on to deliver 3,000 gallons of coolant to beneath the rink.


Dealing With The Elements

These intricacies, says Jimmy Vesey, the Rangers’ young forward, are beyond him. As with his teammate, Pavelec, maintaining their outdoor rink in North Reading, Mass., near Boston, was a crude exercise. It meant teaming with his younger brother, Nolan, and cross-the-street friend, Vinnie, to drag a pair of nets around the corner to a local pond.

“Playing outside is hockey in its purest sense,” said Vesey. “The cold, being in our winter hats. That pond was a special place. Kids came from all over. It was just you and the ice.”

At the pro level, an outdoor game introduces new variables — the weather elements, deeper rows of stadium seating and an open sky that toys with the players’ depth perception. But next to what the players encountered when they were still dreaming of the NHL, the Winter Classic is pure luxury.

As school-aged players, maneuvering on makeshift rinks with no boards, it was hard to discern the predictable angles hockey players rely on. The sun might block their sightlines of an onrushing skater or a speeding puck.

The idea of participating in a real NHL game outside thrills Pavelec, though it might not surpass one of his sweetest memories — playing outside each Christmas Day, a tradition that included his older sister, Marcela, and friends from up and down the street.

On Christmas and through the winter, they could always count on brisk temperatures. But the climate has been warming in the Czech Republic, he says, and he commiserated with young players in his hometown now deprived of a regular outside game.

Anticipating the Winter Classic at Citi Field, and knowing the careful preparation that has gone into the game, he said he has no such worries this time around.

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