NEW YORK -- There they were walking through the snow with sticks in hands, bags slung over their shoulders and hockey jerseys on. If this was put on a green screen it could have been made to look like Mike Richter, Brian Leetch, Dave Maloney, Ken Daneyko and Grant Marshall were walking through the woods to the frozen pond, where they would shovel off the surface to make enough room for a game of shinny.
Except this was happening Tuesday in the heart of New York City, during a walk five blocks down Sixth Avenue from the NHL Store on 47th Street to Bryant Park, with a backdrop of honking cars, yellow cabs, sirens coming from fire engines trying to speed down 44th Street, and impatient pedestrians jaywalking.
"We don't get many opportunities like this," Daneyko said. "The snow falling down, playing outdoors, picture perfect."
The NHL is hoping that's the case again Sunday, when the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils play the first of two 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series games at Yankee Stadium (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC). The action at Yankee Stadium resumes next Wednesday, when the Rangers and New York Islanders play a primetime game in the middle of Super Bowl week in New York (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN).
On Tuesday, though, the NHL's latest hockey winter wonderland was the rink at Bryant Park.
Former players from the Rangers, Devils and Islanders as well as ex-NFL MVP Boomer Esiason, a longtime Rangers season-ticket holder, and a group of kids from the North Jersey Avalanche program based out of Hackensack, N.J., took to the snowy ice to play an hour of shinny with Rangers radio broadcaster Kenny Albert serving as the MC and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman among those in attendance.
The objective was to promote the upcoming Stadium Series games at Yankee Stadium. The event meant so much more than that to those involved.
"I'm like a kid today," said Esiason, who wore No. 7 as a football player because of ex-Rangers great Rod Gilbert. "I appreciate it. I appreciate those players. I appreciate what the NHL is all about. I love the sport and certainly coming out here in Bryant Park, in the heart of New York City, and skating in a 'pond hockey game' against a couple of kids, it doesn't get any better than that.
"I don't know who is a bigger kid, me or the little guys."
Ex-Islanders forward Patrick Flatley said he was "flattered, honored and excited" to be a part of the event Tuesday. He was joined by former teammates Glenn Healy and Eric Cairns.
"These rinks in Manhattan, I feel like I can be in the heart of Saskatchewan, that's the feeling out here," Flatley said. "Unbelievable day. We do lots of things that take years off our lives. This is a day that adds years to the life. It's fantastic to be out in the fresh air."
Flatley said he hopes the games at Yankee Stadium and the game between the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings at Dodger Stadium on Saturday (9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC) show people that hockey can be played whenever and wherever with today's technology.
"They say Canada is the home of hockey, but most kids that play hockey in Canada don't play organized hockey," he said. "They're playing on a pond or a frozen river. With the technology that the NHL is demonstrating we can build rinks anywhere and get more and more people playing hockey in America so everybody can grow to love this game."
The continued popularity of some of the former players, particularly Leetch and Richter, was evident as they were walking down Sixth Avenue.
They stopped to sign autographs for a guy who didn't have a pen and only had a department store cardboard box to write on. One man crossing Sixth Avenue near the entrance to the park screamed "Mike Richter, Brian Leetch, holy [expletive]!"
Fans lined the outside of the boards, some chanting, "Let's go Rangers," which naturally prompted Daneyko to boo with a smile on his face, laughing the entire time.
Dave Maloney, a former Rangers' captain, fraternized with fans as he was waiting to go on the ice, snow starting to cover his uncovered head.
"You're lucky enough to play in the NHL, but to play in a city like this, where the sports fans are so great and the hockey fans in particular are so passionate, they remember you," Richter said. "It feels like a family. It's fun to be able to go out there and do this. Our time is gone. We're fans now and we really appreciate the support that they gave us, so it's our turn now."
Come Sunday it will be time for the real action, when the Devils and Rangers play at Yankee Stadium with two points on the line.
The importance of the actual Stadium Series games is not lost on the former players so much so that Richter, Daneyko and Leetch all brought it up unprompted in their respective interviews. However, that's not their concern anymore and they're OK with that, especially when they can still be part of the celebration and promotion of the biggest hockey event to come to New York since the 1994 Stanley Cup Final.
All they needed was a pair of skates, a stick, a frozen surface and some snow to make them feel like kids again.
"We could stay here all day," Richter said.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer