The Rangers’ current back-to-back set on the road against the Wild and Jets represents a homecoming for two of the youngest Blueshirts.
On Thursday, rookie Brady Skjei will play in front of family and friends in Minnesota, while blueliner Dylan McIlrath will do the same when the Rangers visit Winnipeg.
Skjei, who was called up Tuesday and made his NHL debut that night against the Oilers at Madison Square Garden, grew up about 20 minutes outside Saint Paul, and has a history with the XL Energy Center, first as a season-ticket holder and later as a player with the University of Minnesota.
“Being in Minnesota is pretty cool for me, coming from there,” Skjei said. “I’m really excited and looking forward to it.”
Skjei, the Rangers’ 2012 first-round pick, said he’s expecting family and friends to be in the arena Thursday night.
“There’s a bunch of people,” the Lakeview-native said. “I probably got about 50 texts from people saying they’re coming to watch. I’ll be really excited to see all those people and catch up after the game or something.”
Skjei said he got more comfortable as Tuesday’s game went on. There were nerves at first, he said, but those eventually settled down.
Moving ahead to Thursday, that comfort level will only increase.
“I’ll mellow down a little bit,” Skjei said. “Once you get that first game out of the way, your nerves kind of go away, I think. We’ll see. I’ve played one game so I have a feeling of what it’s like. I just have to play my game and play simple and not try to do too much.”
McIlrath, meanwhile, said Friday’s matchup in Winnipeg will be the first time many of his family have gotten the chance to watch him play hockey. He grew up in the Manitoba city but played his junior hockey Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League before making the jump to the American Hockey League with the Hartford Wolf Pack (then Connecticut Whale).
“It’s going to be really cool,” he said of returning to Winnipeg. “I have friends who have never seen me play hockey. Just only on TV. They’ll be at the game and see me live. It’ll be pretty cool. See them after the game — it’ll be a special moment.”
The woman cheering the loudest at MTS Centre for No. 6 will certainly be McIlrath’s grandmother, Stella, who had season tickets with the Warriors when McIlrath played there.
“She’ll be there,” he said with a smile. “She hasn’t seen me play since junior. She’s really excited. She’s 93 years old now so it’ll be pretty special to have her in the building.”
After picking up his first NHL goal Tuesday against Edmonton, McIlrath said his phone was filled with texts and missed calls from family and friends congratulating him on the milestone.
“I had about 50 text messages. It was pretty cool,” he said with another smile. “Getting back to everyone. All my friends and family were super excited for me. It made it that much sweeter.”
One, especially, stood out. It was from grandma.
“She was pretty pumped. I’m sure I’ll get an email or a hand-written note from my grandma.”