NEW YORK -- Adam Graves was in his element amid harsh elements Thursday.
The former New York Rangers forward was on hand on a bitterly cold day at Madison Square Park, where the NHL Centennial Fan Arena made one of its final stops as part of a yearlong celebration honoring the League's 100th anniversary. Graves presented a $5,000 check to the American Special Hockey Association as part of the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone program and grew reflective when discussing the 2018 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
The Rangers and Buffalo Sabres will play at Citi Field in New York on New Year's Day (1 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports) in the 10th edition of the outdoor game. Graves, who works in hockey and business operations for the Rangers and won the Stanley Cup with them in 1994, said the game will take him and others who once skated on frozen ponds, dreaming of playing the NHL, back to their youth.
"As kids, regardless of whether you had the privilege of playing in the NHL or not, we all grew up on outdoor rinks and playing to where you couldn't feel your toes and there were icicles on the nets and in the mesh," Graves said. "That's hockey at its purest. To be able to celebrate the game, and certainly the growth of the National Hockey League and all of the great players that have been lucky enough to play, to perform on a stage like the Winter Classic is second to none."
Graves played with the Rangers in the League's first official outdoor game, against the Los Angeles Kings in a preseason game at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Sept. 27, 1991. The ice held up despite a high of 95 degrees in the Kings' 5-2 victory.
"That was a night I'll never forget," Graves said Thursday, when temperatures were in the mid-20s in New York. "It wasn't easy at that time, in September, to have ice. They certainly didn't have the technology that they have now. The National Hockey League does a wonderful job in ice preparation and the preparation for the Winter Classic in all facets. The conditions are incredible because there are so many people who have perfected the art of the Winter Classic and the art of playing out doors.
"You're breathing in fresh air and you're in the elements. Whether it's cold or a warmer day, or sunny, it's an incredible opportunity."
The Rangers and Sabres can revel in the opportunity on New Year's Day, with the high temperature expected to be 18 degrees, according to weather.com.
New York (20-13-4) is five points behind the first-place New Jersey Devils in the Metropolitan Division. Though the Sabres (9-20-8) are last in the Atlantic Division, Graves said he expects them to be at their best.
"You start 0-0," Graves said. "The Sabres are a proud team and is only going to get better with experience. They're developing and when healthy they're a tough team to contain.
"Regardless of where you are in the standings, it's a fine line between winning and losing in the National Hockey League. There's not a lot of difference between teams so if you're not ready to play on a particular night, then anyone can beat anyone. With the talent Buffalo has - obviously Jack Eichel leads the way for them -- they're a team that's getting better and better with each game."
The Rangers will be missing two key players. Forward Jesper Fast is sidelined with a quadriceps injury and forward Chris Kreider is out indefinitely with a blood clot in his right arm.
Kreider's injury may be a big blow to the Rangers, but Graves said he is confident they will overcome it like they did when center Mika Zibanejad missed nine games with a concussion before returning Dec. 19. New York went 5-3-1 in his absence.
"With a balanced attack, that's how they've had to overcome, whether it's Zibanejad or other injuries, they're a team that really thrives on the sum of their parts," Graves said. "When you lose a player as impactful as Chris Kreider, you have to depend on each other. No one person can try and fill that physical and speed void. Everyone has to try to fill the void as a group."