Artemi Panarin leads the Rangers in goals, he leads the Rangers in points, and if there were a stat that could quantify the fun someone has playing hockey, does anybody doubt he would be up among the leaders in that, too?
There was Panarin out in the sun in Central Park on Saturday morning, leading the Rangers out for practice wearing blue shades over his eyes and a broad smile across his lips. There was Panarin still on the rink after practice was long over, getting some extra skating in, because he was chasing around his dog.
And there he was smiling and waving to the Ranger fan who shouted hello: "Welcome to New York, Artemi!" Of course, Panarin (and Mr. Riziy, the Jack Russell Terrier) have been in New York since the summertime, and in his first month playing for the Rangers he already has eight goals; still, he hadn't yet had a welcome to his new hometown quite like this.
On a perfect, picturesque Saturday with just the right amount of chill in the air for hockey, the Bread Man and the Blueshirts took their practice to the Park and had a blast with their fans, who came out by the hundreds to take in the Rangers' Saturday skate under the sun. All in all it was a day that had the unmistakable feel of a family affair.
"I love this," said Christine Ciccone, of Staten Island and also of Section 221, with a smile as wide as Panarin's. "I love that they're very family-oriented, they bring families out to do things together -- I was able to bring my daughter and her friend, and they're going ice skating right after the Rangers. What could be better?"
Bruce Silverstein, a fan from Brooklyn, grew up watching the Blueshirts with his grandfather in the 1970s, and on Saturday was taking in practice with his 13-year-old son, Michael, "a new Rangers fan." "All of this is wonderful," Bruce Silverstein said, "but for me the most exciting part is to be seeing this with my son."
While some of these Rangers players have practiced at Lasker before -- two seasons ago, when the Blueshirts were preparing to play in the Winter Classic at Citi Field -- David Quinn arrived on Saturday as a first-time Ranger but a longtime Lasker Rink coach. Quinn's Boston University teams would play a game at Madison Square Garden around Thanksgiving on alternating years, and during their trip to New York, Quinn would take his Terriers up to Lasker to run a clinic with the children from Ice Hockey in Harlem, for whom Lasker Rink is home. Quinn was the guest of honor at Ice Hockey in Harlem's Winter Sports Celebration this past January.
On Saturday, as Quinn was walking off the ice after practice, a former Ice Hockey in Harlem player who is now about college age pulled him aside and showed him a photo from six years ago.
"He pulled out his phone and showed me a picture of him and I the first time I was here in 2013," Quinn said, "and here he is now, a 20-year-old grown-up. It really is special when you come here with Hockey in Harlem, and get an opportunity to give back to kids who love hockey so much and aren't as fortunate as we all are. It really does hit you emotionally.
"I hope our players always appreciate the situation they're in: You're playing in the National Hockey League, you're playing for the New York Rangers," the Coach said. "I think a day like today kind of brings you back to your roots and gives you a little bit of a reality check how fortunate we all are."
His goaltender echoed the sentiment. "Part of growing up, you start to appreciate a lot more things in your life," Henrik Lundqvist said. "Being part of the Rangers is definitely one of them. It's something I don't take for granted."
Lundqvist customarily received one of the loudest cheers when he hit the ice to start practice, and that's about more than just the 45-save stonewalling he threw at the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night. ("I love Tony D.," Ciccone said when asked about her favorite players, "but I mean, everybody loves Lundqvist.") Once Lundqvist got on the ice and started playing, though, his own childhood memories came flooding back.
"Skating in kindergarten," Lundqvist reminisced about his earliest memories on ice. "Small little sandbox area we'd turn into an ice rink every winter, freezing cold, me and my brother skated almost every day. And skating on the lake.
"That's how I got to know the game, playing outside. When I was 8 or 9 they built a rink, but before that it was on the lake by the school. And we had a blast. I loved it."
Of course, the Rangers, who have won four of their last five games, had to be about business, too, since they are preparing to play the Florida Panthers on Sunday afternoon at the Garden. They began their day playing a little 4-on-4 -- the width of Lasker's ice surface is only about 60 feet, not the NHL standard of 85 -- but the Head Coach called that "too much shinny hockey for my liking," so they went to a little 5-on-5 before moving into some drills. Lasker mostly hosts youth hockey teams; the NHL players made it look a little more like crosstown traffic.
"The drills are little more narrow, a little tighter," said Brady Skjei, who grew up playing on the ponds in Minnesota. "But it's actually good, it helps -- it's really crowded out here, especially in the zones, so you've got to make plays quick. That's definitely something we can practice."
Skjei is one of seven current Rangers who played in the 2018 Winter Classic against Buffalo (not including Chris Kreider, who was injured); only Henrik Lundqvist and Marc Staal have been there for all four Rangers outdoor games, in which they are a perfect 4-0.
That is, Lundqvist, Staal, and also Ciccone and Mike Zupa, who were watching Saturday's practice together and who have never missed a Rangers outdoor game, and wouldn't have missed this practice, either.
"This is awesome," said Zupa, an Upper West Sider who usually watches the Rangers from Section 222. "It's wonderful being able to see the work behind the scenes, and to see in a developing team what they're doing to try to bring everything together."
"I love being here. I love being able to be in Central Park on a Saturday morning," Ciccone added. "It's beautiful. It's a perfect day for hockey."