FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Fans of the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins were out in full force hours before the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, firing up their grills and tossing the football to create a party atmosphere in the Gillette Stadium parking lot.
Inside and out, the home of the NFL's New England Patriots was taken over by hockey fans and their passion for the game. Though the majority of fans were from the Boston area, many Canadiens fans made the trip from Montreal to revel in the excitement and take some lighthearted ribbing from the Boston faithful.
"Bruins fans have been great," said George Tsopeis of Montreal, who left home at 4 a.m. to make it to the game. "Some friendly jabs and some good lucks. It was really nice. It's my first time experiencing this. For a Montrealer to watch a Bruins game in this venue, it's beyond description."
Sebastian Cote of Montreal, J.D. Beaudoin (a native of Drummondville, Quebec now living in New Haven, Conn.) and Hubert Prodencher of Saint-Ferdinand, Quebec were tailgating since 9:30 a.m. while their wives were shopping. Though they've been to their share of games at Bell Centre, the outdoor experience brought back childhood memories.
"It's our first time in a stadium like that and it's amazing," Cote said. "Just the size of the stadium right now is quite amazing. And to be outside, to have the feeling that it's old-school going back when we were kids playing at the ice rink or our neighborhood … and tailgating in Canada is not that big, so it's pretty nice to be able to experience that with hockey."
Lou Charello of North Providence, R.I., was among a group of 20 in Lot 22 enjoying sizzling steaks, burgers, smoked sausage, cold beer and homemade blonde brownies. Charello was a Patriots season ticket holder before trading them for Bruins tickets. Even when he was at Gillette Stadium for football, he could tell how much the Bruins mean to the region.
"Even when you come here for an early-season Patriots game, you see a lot of Bruins jerseys in the parking lot," Charello said. "They're football fans, but they're Bruins fans.
"This is the first time I've tailgated for hockey and it's about the same [as football], the same enthusiasm."
Elsewhere, 7-year-old Cormac Cunningham was playing hockey with friends and about to see his first NHL game. Cormac said his favorite players are Bruins forwards Patrice Bergeron and Seth Griffth, who signed a stick Cormac received for Christmas.
Living in Cumberland, R.I., a 15-minute drive to Foxborough, Cormac's father, Mark, grew up a fan of the Hartford Whalers and played hockey through high school before going to college on a golf scholarship. He coaches hockey at Bishop Feehan High School in Attelboro, Mass., and youth hockey with Bruce Berard, the brother of retired NHL player Bryan Berard.
"I've played all my life and my son plays, and just to share this experience with him …," Cunningham said. "For me, wearing a Bruins hat is almost like wearing a Yankees hat. You can never take hockey out of my blood. It's always a part of me."
While the sounds of live music pulsated from nearby Spectator Plaza, which hosted 90,000 square feet of interactive hockey-themed attractions, three Bruins fans were polishing off their drinks before heading into the stadium and weren't shy about expressing their pride for their team and their city.
"The hockey vibe in this town in unprecedented," said Ian Baker of Dorchester, Mass. "There are no better fans in the country."
The passion was obvious during pregame.
"Beers, tailgating, the fun times are flowing," said Joe Kane of West Roxbury, Mass.