Flames hold 90-minute practice in New York City's Central Park

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Sunday, February 5, 2017

NEW YORK -- Among all the joggers, dog walkers, bird watchers and families feeding the ducks in Central Park this weekend, Kris Versteeg and his out-of-town pals came for a picnic.

A puck picnic, that is.

Needing a clean sheet of ice, the Calgary Flames held a brisk, 90-minute practice in the fresh air Saturday. Framed by apartment buildings along 110th Street and skyscrapers beyond Fifth Avenue, the visitors skated on a rink in the north end of the park, at the foot of Harlem.

"You're so used to being in these big stadiums, big arenas, it's nice to come out here," goaltender Chad Johnson said. "It just changes up the environment, it sort of recharges your batteries."

"I grew up in Calgary. You grow up in the outdoors, it's where you dream of sort of playing in the NHL," he said. "It brings back memories of being a kid and just going out and having fun, skating around with your friends ... just being outside, that crisp air."

It was 26 degrees shortly after 11 a.m. when the Flames got off a team bus in their full uniforms, having already dressed at a midtown Manhattan hotel. No need for the normal $7 skate rental fee at Lasker Rink, the club brought its own.

They laced up their skates in a makeshift storage room, near where little girls from the Figure Skating in Harlem program were arranging cupcakes, brownies and cookies for their Soul on Ice bake sale.

Shouts of "c'mon, boys!" and "c'mon, Moose!" reverberated around the boards as coach Glen Gulutzan and his assistants kept it lively. The oft-heard sounds of barking dogs, police sirens and car horns replaced by the slash of skates, the clack-clack of sticks, the clang of pucks off goalposts.

Naturally, the sight of NHL players whirling around a rink often occupied by toddlers drew puzzled looks.

"Is that an adult league game?" a woman asked.

Saturday mornings at the rink -- it's slightly smaller than where the Flames play at home in the Saddledome -- are usually reserved for skate lessons.

Later in the day, the surface was opening for public skating. In the summer, it becomes a swimming pool.

About 100 fans watched from various spots. Some came wearing Flames jerseys, eager to see their favorites. Others casually strolled by with their pets, popping in for a curious glance.

"This is pretty amazing, the ice is amazing," Versteeg said. "It's always nice to change things up."

As for the cold, he said his toes were OK. He felt the chill more with "the wind in the ears." A little eye-black did the trick with glare under sunny skies.

Versteeg scored a goal Friday night as the Flames won 4-3 in overtime at New Jersey. The Flames play the New York Rangers on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, where the New York Knicks hosted LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night.

With no time for a morning skate before Sunday's game, the Flames instead rode the bus 2 1/2 miles into the woods for an off-day workout. The Winnipeg Jets, Philadelphia Flyers and Florida Panthers previously used Lasker for practice.

When this session was over, center Sean Monahan posed for pictures on the ice with his mom and dad. They were in town from Brampton, Ontario, and saw him score his team-leading 19th goal this weekend.

Spending a day in the park with his parents was "pretty special," the 22-year-old Monahan said.

"You grow up as a kid, playing in the outdoors all the time throughout the winter, it's nice to get that feeling again," he said.

Defenseman Dougie Hamilton attracted attention with his Flames knit cap. The players all got new ones earlier in the day, and Hamilton kept the price tag attached.

"Decided to leave it on, see if I could let it flop in the wind a little," he said.

The Lemert family also wound up with souvenirs.

Johnson autographed a puck for 9-year-old Caroline, who plays goalie on a youth team. Her 11-year-old brother, Julian, chased down a puck that deflected high over the protective netting.

Mom Nancy left with a wonderful winter memory, too, a close-up look with her kids at real-life pros.

"It's pretty exciting, I have to admit," she said. "I think I'm as excited as they are."