NEW YORK - It was like being kids again for the Flames.
The team practiced Saturday at an outdoor rink in Central Park, not far from their Manhattan hotel, a part business-part fun excursion in advance of Saturday's matinee at MSG against the New York Rangers (NOON MTN, SPORTSNET, FAN960).
Fresh off a 4-3 overtime win against the Devils Friday night across the river in Newark, there were a lot of smiles - and a lot of eye black to deal with the glaring sun - when the players hit the noticeably-smaller than regulation rink.
"It's fun," said defenceman TJ Brodie, who collected four assists in the victory over New Jersey. "It's been awhile since I played outside on the ice so it reminds me of being young again."
If you replaced the hotel banquet room where the team got dressed with your average Calgary home and swapped out the bus that ferried them to Central Park with mom's mini-van, the whole process was similar to practice time for the average Timbit or novice player.
One big difference: the team got a police escort into the park and were greeted by an excited crowd as they made their way down to the ice.
"It's a cool experience," said centre Matt Stajan, as he soaked up the atmosphere. "It's Central Park … you don't get many opportunities to get here in your lifetime, let alone with your hockey team to skate in the middle of it in front of fans. I think we should all really take in this experience and be thankful we had it as it probably won't happen again."
"It's been fun," echoed winger Troy Brouwer. "A little bit of a quick turnaround from last night and guys weren't exactly sure what to expect but once you see the rink and get out here and start skating around and see the fans that were waiting for us here, it's a great time. It's something that I haven't done in my career and you may not do ever again. So it's one to remember."
Goalie Brian Elliott is one of three Flames - along with Michael Frolik and Deryk Engelland, who didn't skate yesterday - to have taken to the ice in Central Park before with past teams, albeit at different rinks.
"We didn't really practice," recalled Elliott, of his first experience five years ago with the St. Louis Blues. "We just kind of played dodgeball. I don't think we had boards or glass out there."
Elliott said the key for an event like this is to strike the right balance between business and pleasure.
"You kinda have to have fun with it but you also have to use it a little bit," said Elliott. "We don't have time for a pre-game skate against New York here with the early game. We have to use it as a preparation day, not just all fun and games."
Coach Glen Gulutzan said the fresh air and sunshine did the team good.
"Ya, a little bit of vitamin D through the eyes," joked Gulutzan. "I thought it was great. Obviously the rink isn't regulation size but we did play some 3-on-3 and we did get a little skate at the end like you saw. I think that's good. It sets us up - we're 24 hours away from playing in Madison Square Garden and we'll have a good rest."
The idea to practice in Central Park was to inject some variety into this current three-game, six-day road swing and give the players a change of pace in their gruelling schedules.
"(It was) a little bit more about having some fun," said Gulutzan. "But there was some work at the end just to make sure we're prepared. Every practice after a game is tough, especially when there is a little travel involved."
Gulutzan agreed it was like a trip down memory lane for the coaches and players, harkening back to a simpler time when it was just them and the game they love.
"We took on a little bit of that, a little scrimmaging and playing in the outdoor rink and the banging of the sticks … to start the faceoff. That's stuff you did when you were a kid and you played outside," he said. "It's nice to go back there every once in awhile and to break up the monotony. It's a tough season, this season. The NHL is 82 hard games and to have a day like this where we can be outside on a great day, it breaks it up."
Prior to the practice, Elliott was asked if anyone was brining hot chocolate for everyone just to complete the experience.
"I hope so," he laughed. "That would be nice."