The Rangers traded in their state-of-the-art Westchester practice facility in for a return to their roots for hockey outdoors during the team's open practice Saturday afternoon at Lasker Rink in Central Park.
Thousands of fans packed the rink, sipping on hot chocolate bundled up in scarves and hats during the hour-long practice with the city's skyline close enough to touch.
"It was a lot of fun. It was a really cool experience. Not too often you get to watch your favorite team practice outdoors," said Eddie Ebani, of Manhattan, who took in the practice with his wife, Joyce. "It was a really good day all around. It was great that the Rangers put this on."
The chance to play outdoors during the rigorous NHL season doesn't come often, so the Rangers were more than eager to jump at the opportunity to feel like kids again. While it was still a practice, there was certainly more of a light-hearted feel in the early winter air, with smiles never leaving the players' faces.
"It was cool. It was fun," said Kevin Shattenkirk. "I think everyone always says the same thing that it's fun to get outside and play a little bit. Today was no different. A little different rink. I think it was a 300 by 30 rink. Other than that, it was a good time getting out here and changing it up a bit."
Nearly all of the Rangers arrived by bus to the rink nestled in on 110th street, and were greeted by fans lining the walkways to welcome them to the special event.
For three Rangers, though, the commute was a bit different. Forwards Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey, along with defenseman Brady Skjei, arrived via the 3 Train from Penn Station dressed in their jerseys and pads and complete with hockey sticks.
"I don't know if I'll ever do that again to a hockey practice," Vesey said with a laugh. "I'll always remember that."
So too will Hugo Wenstrom, who along with his father, Todd, and sister, Ingrid, hopped on the train midway through the ride up and got the chance to talk with the three Blueshirts on the subway.
"That was crazy," Wernstrom said. "I saw three, big men in the train with Rangers jerseys on and I was like 'wait, are those Rangers players?' And they were. I don't even know what to say."
The Rangers and Sabres are now less than a month away from meeting in the 2018 NHL Winter Classic, and an event like Saturday helps to prepare the players for what lies ahead on that day in Queens.
"You get that taste of it with the sun in your eyes, the glare on the ice," captain Ryan McDonagh said. "Just a lot of memories of growing up as a little kid getting to play outdoors with your family and the kids in your neighborhood. [The Winter Classic is] a month away, but it's going to come quick here, so it's good to get a taste of it now and it'll help us for sure."
For Adam Ritter, who made the trip from Hamilton, N.J. with his wife and two kids, the opportunity to spend the day in the city watching the team he and his family love was something he could not let slip by.
"This was absolutely great," he said. "The kids got to come out and sit behind the goal and watch the practice, and to be outside in New York City, it's just something unbelievable."
Like all of his teammates, McDonagh said he was not surprised by the turnout of fans who spent their Saturday afternoon in the park with the Rangers. He's grown to anticipate their support, no matter the city he and the team are in.
"I've come to expect that from the Ranger fans," he said. "They show up no matter where we're at in any part of the country. We've got fans at practices for us, so it's no coincidence right here in the heart of the city that it was a great turn out."
In the end, the Rangers got to be kids again having fun playing the game they love. For coach Alain Vigneault, the memories of spending free time on the rink came rushing back in an instant.
"You go back to your young days putting your skates on in the little house by the lake," he said. "You put your mittens on and you're spending hours on the ice just for the love of the game and the fun of the game. That's a little bit what happened today. It brought everybody back."