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Excitement Brewing for Winter Classic with Stage Set in Foxborough

by Caryn Switaj / Boston Bruins

FOXBOROUGH — As the sun came up over Gillette Stadium on Thursday morning, the scene was perfectly set for a busy day in the lead-up to the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between Boston and Montreal.

The Bruins hit the ice for a team photo and full practice around 11:00 a.m., getting a feel before the puck drops on Friday’s game. Clad in their Black & Gold uniforms with the old-school Spoked-B on the front, the Bruins went to work for a hard skate, but also took in the scene one more time before the stands will be packed with fans.

“It was fun walking out for practice — they had music playing, you can see how big it is when you walk out, so I’m excited to get out there [on Friday],” said Matt Beleskey, who took in his first Patriots’ game at Gillette in the Fall. “It’s going to be a great experience.”

The setup has been taking Beleskey back to his youth days, spending time on his friend’s backyard rink and frequenting about 10 different rinks within a 15-mile radius of his house in Ontario.

This sheet of ice is much bigger, much more aesthetic, with much more meaning — but the atmosphere’s key ingredient is bred from the excitement of simply loving the game.

“It’s obviously one of the highlights of the season for the whole League, so it’s a privilege and honor to be playing in this game,” said Captain Zdeno Chara. “It’s one of those experiences you will always treasure and remember.”

Hometown Bruins like Jimmy Hayes and Frank Vatrano are also taking in the experience without getting wrapped up in it.

“It’s obviously really cool,” said East Longmeadow, Mass. native Vatrano. “Like I say all the time, I grew up watching the Boston-Montreal rivalry and my first game was against Montreal. And now playing against them in the Winter Classic only an hour and a half away is a surreal feeling and I’m excited to get out there.”

“A lot of people around getting excited for the game,” said Hayes, the Dorchester, Mass. native whose large family is always nearby. “Especially with my family and the people in my hometown, so it’s just a lot of excitement.”

Chara and Patrice Bergeron are the only two current Bruins who suited up in the Winter Classic in 2010 at Fenway Park.

“For a lot of us, it’s our first one, so we tried to enjoy it as much as we could,” said Brett Connolly. “And at the same time, try and have a good practice, get used to the ice and I think the guys had a lot of fun with it. The ice was maybe not as good as what we’re used to playing on, but we’re going to try and make the most out of it.”

Tuukka Rask was at the spectacle in 2010 against Philadelphia, and though he backed up Tim Thomas, he had the best seat in the house.

“It’s definitely fun. I’ve got to be more focused than last time, actually playing hockey,” smiled Rask. “But at the end of the day, it’s the same game and you just try to stay focused on what you need to do out there to be successful.”

“But it’s something that might come once in your career. Personally, I’ve got to make the most of it.”

The event is made all the more special by being in the Patriots’ home. Bill Belichik hit the ice with Claude Julien for a skate on Thursday morning before both the Bruins and Canadiens practices. The Patriots players also stopped by the locker room to welcome the Bruins and wish them luck.

“It’s special to be here. It’s definitely an organization that we respect a lot,” said Bergeron. “Just with the success that they’ve had over the years, year after year. So it’s a special moment. I mean, especially here at Gillette Stadium with 60,000-plus fans, that’s something we don’t get to experience at all. So we’re going to try to take everything in and enjoy the moment.”

The much anticipated matchup between the rival Bruins and Canadiens will no doubt be fueled by the rivalry — and the fact that the Bruins sit just one point back of the Canadiens in the Atlantic Division.

“To play a rival team like the Montreal Canadiens that these two teams have so much history between each other and to be able to bring it out to an outdoor game that has meaning to it is also very special,” said Julien. “I know that we’re enjoying the moment right now from the skate [on Wednesday] with the family to the practice today to everything that’s going on.”

“But I can assure you from my past experience that when the puck is dropped, both teams will be focused on what they have to do here. We all know how tight the standings are and where we stand with each other, and that game has great meaning to it.”

There are other factors that will have an impact on the game — like lineups, injuries, ice conditions and the outdoor elements.

Thursday’s ice was warmed up by some bright December sunshine, causing it to be a little soft and it difficult for the goalies to see the puck with the glare. Players experienced the same problem, even with the black marks painted under their eyes.

Rest assured, they won’t be worrying about that on Friday, though.

“It shouldn’t change the way we play. You can’t really be trying to change too much because of the ice conditions,” said Rask. “We just really have to focus on playing our game.”

When the puck drops, the stage will no longer be set. The outcome of two points, in Gillette Stadium, in front of tens of thousands of fans, will be within reach.

“It’s special to be here. I know with the whole League and everyone watching, it’s a big stage,” said Bergeron. “We’re happy to be here. We try to take everything in and enjoy the moment.”

“I had the feeling at Fenway — winning in overtime was very special and something that I still remember and I have great memories of — so you want to do that again.”

“We’re happy to be here. But at the same time, it’s a regular-season game. It’s a big game for us for the standings, and that’s the way we have to approach it.”

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