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Patriots excited as Winter Classic preparations begin

by Shawn Roarke / NHL.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Hardcore fans of the New England Patriots, celebrating their team's 12th win of the season, remained scattered across the parking lots of Gillette Stadium on a brisk, but by no means frigid, Sunday night in New England while work crews from the National Hockey League took control of the building to begin the transformation toward the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.

While the post-game tailgate festivities ended, when the snarled traffic along adjoining Route 1 abated, NHL employees worked throughout the night, putting down flooring and performing other set-up tasks to prepare the stadium for a rink-building process that will begin in earnest Monday in preparation of the Winter Classic between the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens here on Jan. 1 (1 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

The Bruins and Canadiens will have practices at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 31 before an alumni game between players from each organization will take place at 3:30 p.m. (NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports).

For some of the Patriots, the transformation, which began soon after they finished streaming out of the stadium after a 33-16 victory against the Tennessee Titans, was an exciting beginning to a process they will observe at arm's length for the better part of the next two weeks.

"It's going to be awesome, a great atmosphere [for the Winter Classic]," said Jimmy Garappolo, the backup quarterback to starter Tom Brady. Garappolo, a Chicago Blackhawks fan while growing up outside of the Windy City, admits he is "turning over to the Bruins" since arriving with the Patriots this summer and is looking forward to seeing the rink take shape.

The defending Super Bowl champion Patriots finished their home schedule Sunday, going 7-1 at Gillette Stadium for the season. They finish the regular season with away games against the New York Jets (Dec. 27) and the Miami Dolphins (Jan. 3) before they start the NFL postseason after the first-round bye they earned with a victory Sunday and a loss by the Denver Broncos later in the afternoon. They will play a second-round game during the weekend of Jan. 16-17.

The Patriots won't play at Gillette Stadium for almost a month at the earliest, but they will be around, using the practice facilities adjacent to the stadium. They will have a first-hand view of the rink-build process, which will be supervised by Dan Craig, the NHL's Senior Director of Facilities Operations.

Garappolo says he is excited to see the rink take shape while the Patriots spend the next two weeks preparing for the rest of the regular season.

Growing up in Arlington Heights, Ill., Garappolo followed the Blackhawks pretty closely. He says Jonathan Toews is his favorite player and he loves the character of the recent Blackhawks teams. He says he played hockey for one year when he was younger, as a defenseman. To hear him tell it, he was not very good and he quickly turned his attention to football.

Alan Branch, a defensive lineman with the Patriots, says he grew up playing a bit of roller hockey as a kid before embracing football full-time. He played football at the University of Michigan, where he says he saw "a lot of good hockey." He missed the "Cold War II" outdoor game at The Big House between the Wolverines and Michigan State and was already in the NFL when the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs visited the Michigan football stadium for the 2014 Winter Classic.

"That is really exciting, pretty cool," Branch said when told about the impending Winter Classic. "Outdoor hockey is old-school. I didn't grow up being a hockey fan, but merged into one as an adult. It should be an awesome game."

Right guard Josh Kline, another Chicago-area kid, has been with the Patriots since 2013. One thing he has learned in his three years with New England is that the sports fans here know how to split their loyalties to embrace all of the area teams.

"It's going to be a great experience," said Kline, who says he follows the NHL when his schedule allows. "Obviously they love the Bruins around here, so it should be a real good experience."

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