The Devils in Yankees Court

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Icy cold winds blew across Babe Ruth Plaza outside of Yankee Stadium Saturday morning.  But inside the stadium, a rink of ice sat in the middle of the ballpark. The odd thing about these elements was that it was warmer down on the field by the ice rink than it was on the other side of the Yankee Stadium walls.  There was no wind floating down onto the field.  That’s what provided so much relief for those huddled on or near the ice rink.

The stands, though, were ravaged with the cold from the winds forcing its way through the gates of Yankee Stadium.  That is a sign that the fans gathering for the New York Stadium Series will be getting the worst of the weather conditions.

In its first matchup of the New York Stadium Series, the New Jersey Devils were the first to take to the fresh ice the day before the big game. The team couldn’t ask for better conditions. After practice, the team and their families skated on the ice before the New York Rangers took to the ice for their practice.

The snow started to come down during the Devils’ family skate and kept coming down for a few more hours. The Rangers saw snow throughout their time on the ice, conditions very similar to their Winter Classic just two years ago when they played against the Philadelphia Flyers in Citizens Bank Park (home of the Phillies).

Many of the Rangers current players played in the 2012 Winter Classic. On the Devils side, only Jaromir Jagr (who was with the Flyers that year) played in that game. Yet, Jagr is not the only Devil to appear in a Winter Classic. Michael Ryder appeared in the Fenway Park Winter Classic back in 2010 while he was playing for the Boston Bruins.

For many of the Devils, this will be their first time, and maybe even their last time playing in an outdoor NHL game. The Devils are not a franchise that is normally picked to be in a special game. Maybe it’s because of this factor that both the Devils and the New York Islanders (who are also in the same predicament) were placed in the Yankees locker room for the Stadium Series, while the Rangers were put in the away team’s locker room.

“I’m really excited,” Devils netminder Martin Brodeur said. “This is fun for me and my family, to be part of this.  I’ve watched a lot of [the outdoor games] through the years and I never guessed that the Devils would be in one.  And here we’re going to play tomorrow.  So I’m really excited about it.  It’s going to be fun.  It’s going to be good memories, hopefully.”

The Devils remarked on how they were in awe of all of the Yankee memories in all of the rooms they are using at the stadium. From the locker room to the dressing rooms to the training rooms, seeing pictures of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and many of the great legendary Yankee players everywhere they turn…this is what makes this adventure very special for the team.

“Well, I think it’s fantastic,” Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. “The excitement a Rangers/Devils game generates on its own is big. To add Yankee Stadium and an outdoor game to that I think is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I think that’s how we’re approaching it. You try and take everything in, enjoy it. We’re using the Yankees’ dressing room. They’ve got pictures of Babe Ruth in there and Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle; it’s an amazing place. I can tell you, the athletes today are in much better shape than they were back then.”

“It’s a special place, that’s for sure,” Jagr said. “It just hit me when we got in the dressing room – [there are] a lot of great dressing rooms, but I’ve never seen anything like that. You don’t know, it’s so big. You don’t know who is sitting on the other side. It’s going to be tough for the coaches to have a meeting. If you make a mistake, [they’re] probably not going to find you in 15 minutes. So that’s a good thing about it. But it’s a very special place, just to play here. And I’m from Czech, so baseball is not very popular. And I can imagine for some guys who love baseball, [what it’s like] just to be here.”

“When I came to the dressing room, I took some pictures” Jagr said.  “Babe Ruth was in there. I took a picture of that picture. There’s a lot of pictures.  I look around.  It’s very special to see those pictures of the players. You heard about how great they were.”

“It’s just an unbelievable setting,” Brodeur said. “I think with TV and all of the big Winter Classics the NHL has put together, players have an idea. But until you come in, step on to the field, step on to the ice, it’s pretty amazing. I’m really excited to be part of this.”

“I’ve been living here for 21 years, 20 years here in the New York area, so I know what the Yankees mean to the people around here and what it means to the world of sports and all the great players that went through this organization.

“And so for us just to be in the locker room, you know, we’re just hanging out where they eat – it’s pretty cool. It’s a good feeling to be in this building and playing the game of hockey. But it’s something that growing up, the Yankees were the Yankees. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, you know who the New York Yankees are.

“I think if you’re a big baseball fan, there’s only a few stadiums you’d love to play in and you’re going to remember all your life and Yankee Stadium is one of them. So to be the first hockey game to be played [inside Yankee Stadium], for us it’s pretty exciting.”

The Rangers, on the other hand, see the amazing setting from inside the field. They don’t see these legends every which way they turn because they are using the visiting team’s rooms.  They’re not marked with Yankee memorabilia at every corner.

As for the legend himself, Brodeur has been given the nod for Sunday. Cory Schneider, who has been on a hot winning streak for the Devils lately, stood to the side and suggested that Brodeur play at Yankee Stadium.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Brodeur said of starting. “I mean, I’ve done what I’ve done. I want to deserve to play because of the way I play now, not what I did in the past.”

Back in the 2012 Winter Classic between the Flyers and the Rangers, Jagr left the game within the first few minutes of the first period and did not return. The cold had aggravated one of his muscles, so he thought it best to stay out of the game. Going into this year’s contest, that injury still weighs upon everyone’s minds, including Jagr’s.

At first, Jagr went out into the cold field with his flip flops on. When he reappeared for practice, he was fully wrapped up, wearing a ski mask to cover his entire face all throughout practice.

“It wasn’t bad,” Jagr said of the cold. “I had some extra stuff on me. And I wanted to just try something, [not knowing] how cold it’s going to be tomorrow. So I wasn’t very cold. But I got to do a little more, a little extra stuff for tomorrow, but not too [much extra clothes], because I would be too heavy.

“If I had a choice to play here or in L.A., I would probably choose L.A. – nothing against the Yankees or New York. I think [that way] because I had a bad experience two years ago. I got injured in the first period [of the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic] and it was the same weather – it was pretty cold. And I think it’s a lot tougher for the muscles to get warmed up. And I feel like it would be a lot better for me, for my body, to play in different conditions.

“It’s not like I don’t stretch or I don’t warm up. I do. But it’s just different. It’s totally different. Even when you’re more careful, you just never know. I think the chances something might happen to me are bigger than a regular game. That’s the way I feel. If I’m right or wrong, I don’t know. Maybe it’s in my head because it happened – it happened two years ago. And I was pretty careful today in practice, too. I just tested the water.”

Back when Jagr had his stint in the KHL, he played outdoors in Moscow. How does this polar vortex compare to the Russian cold?

“Well, [the KHL was] the first time I really had to play any game outside since I was a little kid. But the ice wasn’t very good. The rink wasn’t very big. They just did it for the show for the All-Star Game. And it was so cold. We played in January, I think, in Moscow. It was very cold. This is like summer compared to hockey in Moscow.”

Game time will begin at 12:30PM on Sunday. For those attending the game, they’ll begin to understand that ‘awe’ factor when they walk into Yankee Stadium to witness a hockey game.

“In awe,” DeBoer said of how he felt on Saturday after being out on the field. “I think it’s even before that. When I walked in the Yankees’ dressing room I was in awe. I can’t describe the memorabilia on the walls in there and the pictures. They’re not team photos, they’re casual shots of guys sitting around the locker room or on the training table and in quiet moments, legendary athletes that you’ve watched your whole life. It’s an awe-inspiring place. And I think walking out tomorrow with 50 or 60,000 people in here is going to be magical.”

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