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Enjoying the Outdoor Experience

by Cory Wright / New York Islanders
Kyle Okposo skates during the Islanders practice at Yankee Stadium. Click here for a full gallery from today's practice.

Even if he'd told you otherwise, Jack Capuano had Tuesday circled on his calendar. For weeks, the Islanders head coach claimed that he wasn’t looking ahead to Wednesday's Coors Light NHL Stadium Series spectacle and that he – and his players – were focused on the task at hand.

But when the day finally came – and admittedly, it came quicker than anticipated for Capuano – the Yankees fan relished the opportunity to be a guest in the house that Ruth built.

“To come in here as a Yankee fan and just take it all in… I feel extremely fortunate,” Capuano said. “We all circled it on the calendar at the start of the year. You pull in on the bus, walk through the tunnel, go into the clubhouse – which is absolutely amazing – and then you step out there and see the atmosphere. It’s pretty amazing.”

The coach wasn’t the only one blown away by the setting and amenities. As the players filed into the Yankees’ clubhouse – one of the perks of being the “home” team for the game – they all took out their phones and began taking pictures and recording videos.

“It’s tremendous,” Tavares said of the clubhouse before joking with Colin McDonald that they’d have to call each other’s phones to talk during the intermissions because of the spacious layout.

Tuesday afternoon the players and their families took in the sights and atmosphere of the stadium. The rink, sitting between first and third base, was at the center of the action, but the iconic frieze and the 50,000 seats created a magnificent and picturesque setting.

Michael Grabner skates with his son at the Islanders family skate.

A handful of players also took the time to visit Yankee Stadium’s famous Monument Park, where Yankees greats, such as Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, are enshrined. Even a die-hard Red Sox fan like Colin McDonald, or a born-and-bred Twins fan like Kyle Okposo, could appreciate how special Tuesday was.

“I have a ton of respect for the Yankees and always have,”Okposo said. ”Just to walk around and see everything, it’s great. To know the history and tradition… and see all the old pictures of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle it’s pretty special.”

After a spirited practice, the players welcomed their families into the fold, taking their significant others, parents and children out for a post-practice skate, allowing the Isles to share the unique moment with the ones closest to them.

“It’s a great experience and a great memory and it was nice to share it with my son and my family,” Michael Grabner said.

The players could hardly contain their enthusiasm and excitement all day and it was evident that they had been looking forward to this day for months. Capuano said that today snuck up on him faster than he anticipated. Deep down, he must know that it will fly by just as quickly.

That’s why it was important for everyone involved Tuesday to pose for a few pictures, take an extra long look around and let it all sink in.

The focus was exactly where it needed to be today.

Growing Up Outdoors:

[I remember] not wanting my dad to come pick me up because I wanted just a bit of extra time. I love skating outside and always will.Kyle Okposo

John Tavares grew up playing hockey on [current Edmonton Oilers center] Sam Gagner’s outdoor rink in Oakville, ON. Gagner’s father owned a custom-rink business, so the backyard rink was big enough for three-on-three hockey and came complete with piping and a refrigeration system. If the weather was “good” (aka cold), Tavares could play on Gagner’s rink from early November to mid-March.

“We used to log six or seven hours out there three or four times a week,” Tavares said. “His rink was good for three-on-three hockey. It’s some of the best memories I have.”

Tavares’ atom-level team (ages 9-10 in Canada) held one outdoor practice a week, usually reserved for having fun and playing shinny to remind the kids what hockey is all about.

Kyle Okposo also reminisced today about his outdoor experiences. Okposo grew up playing at Groveland Rec Center in St. Paul, MN.

“I played outside a lot growing up,” Okposo said. “[I remember] not wanting my dad to come pick me up because I wanted just a bit of extra time. I love skating outside and always will.”

The Cold:

The chill-factor at today’s skate (19 degrees, but felt like 10) would have been balmy to a young Tavares and Okposo. Today, the temperature in both St. Paul, MN and Toronto was -1, but felt like -18 with the wind chill.

“It’s obviously colder back home right now,” Okposo said. “It was cold out there, but definitely manageable.”

Okposo opted for an extra turtleneck at today’s practice, as the team was supplied with their choice of winter wear, from long johns to ski masks. The polyester/spandex top was a popular choice, while the face mask was tried and discarded by a few guys – Casey Cizikas and Matt Donovan – for the uncomfortable feel and excess material around the mouth.

Lubomir Visnovsky takes a breather during practice at Yankee Stadium.

“I felt better without the ski mask on,” Cizikas, who will wear the turtleneck tomorrow, said. “I didn’t like the way it felt in my helmet and when it covered my mouth, it felt like it was harder to breathe.”

However, the mask was embraced by Frans Nielsen and Peter Regin, who sported the medieval look for the duration of practice. Regin said he liked the extra warmth around the ears and neck and wanted to be familiar with the feel in case he opts for it tomorrow night.

The cold certainly adds an extra element to the equation, although the winter athletes found ways to adapt to their new surroundings.

Movement was deemed the key to staying warm and most players said they felt okay after taking a few laps, but the crisp air left impressions on the exposed parts of the face. The second key was the heated bench, which will be much more important come game time, as the Islanders wait for their shifts and have to endure other breaks like TV time outs.

“It’s tough on the goalies,” Capuano said. “They can’t skate around like everyone else.”

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