BOSTON – Cruising around on the freshly snow covered ice in Fenway Park – with buildup from flakes falling from the sky and not shavings from the Flyers’ skates laying on the pristine surface – Riley Cote couldn’t help himself.
Cote huddled with Jeff Carter near the red line and scooped up all the snow he could, as the Flyers’ regulars went in one-on-one with goaltenders Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher practicing for the shootout.
Once piled, Cote and Carter packed the snow – wincing each time the cold snow touched their hands – and set up an arsenal in front of the penalty box.
The two teamed up with Dan Carcillo to launch them at unsuspecting teammates, with Scott Hartnell being the primary target, as they skated in on the goalies.
“It kind of makes you feel like a kid again,” Cote said of the Flyers’ practice before Friday’s Winter Classic. “When you’re playing outdoors as a kid, you’re having fun. I haven’t skated outside since I was 12, I think.
“I think it’s just the atmosphere in general. It’s more fun, it’s looser. Your family is in town. You’re back on the outdoor ice and it’s snow. It’s still business, but I don’t know why – you just feel like you can [mess] around a little bit more.”
After a few flying bombs in his direction, Hartnell knew what to expect and playfully jumped to head-off a snowball that was hurling towards his face.
On Thursday, the Flyers were all smiles.
It’s hard to say, given the setting and that their families lined the glass around the rink on New Year’s Eve, that the Flyers wouldn’t be having fun at the Winter Classic regardless of their current record. After all, they were picked for the game back on July 15.
But things have been different for the Flyers, who have reeled off four straight wins after a putrid 3-13-1 stretch dropped them to 14th in the Eastern Conference.
“This is what sports are all about: teams getting on rolls and having confidence,” Cote said. “You’re winning and things are going well – you can get away with that kind of stuff.”
Cote has not dressed in a game since Dec. 21 – and doesn’t figure to dress for the Winter Classic – but has always had a pulse on the team. He is one of the most respected figures in the Flyers’ locker room.
Flyers coach Peter Laviolette has been one of those pushing for his team to getting back to having fun.
“It was great out there,” Laviolette said. “The snow piled up towards the end there, made it tough to move the puck in some drills in shootouts, the goaltenders looked outstanding. It certainly was a lot of fun.
“By the time we got off the ice at four o'clock, it was an absolutely perfect day and a perfect ten for pond hockey and being outside, there was no snow coming down anymore. It wasn't too cold and it was just a great day. It ended perfect.”
The Flyers skated for a little over an hour as a team and then were joined on the ice by family and friends for a few laps around the rink that spans from first to third base in the 97-year-old ball yard.
Even with the snow – Boston ended up with 2-to-3 inches on Friday – all of the Flyers’ players praised the ice conditions at Fenway.
“It was better than probably half of the rinks in the NHL,” Hartnell said.
“The ice is great, actually, until near the end when it got a little bit snowy,” Mike Richards said. “But the ice is good.
“Today was really special. You think about it a little bit, and coming in, you don't really realize how special it is until you actually get out there and see Fenway Park and the Green Monster while you're playing hockey. It's pretty neat.”
Chris Pronger, like many of the fans that have tickets for Friday’s game, voiced his concerns for the weather. Many have feared a postponement until Saturday. All things considered, the game would go off without a hitch if the weather played out like it did on Friday.
Magically, it started snowing – much to the disbelief of some of the Bruins – as Boston walked out of the Red Sox dugout for their morning practice.
Friday’s updated forecast for the National Weather Service calls for light snow during the game. The puck is set to drop at 1 o’clock on NBC.
“My concerns were Mother Nature and the cold,” Pronger said. “As long as it's not too cold, and I think everybody was pretty worried about rain being a factor. I think we can all handle snow and we've all kind of grown up with snow coming down and skating outside.
“And if the weather stays the way it was today, I think you know we'll be in for a real good game.”
Given the picturesque setting, it's hard to imagine otherwise.
Leighton to start
Peter Laviolette decided to stick with the hot hand in net, giving the start in the Winter Classic to newcomer Michael Leighton. He pitched a shutout in Madison Square Garden against the Rangers on Wednesday night, earning his fourth win in four starts for the Flyers this season. Leighton has allowed just six goals in four starts with a .943 save percentage.
It’s pretty incredible, really, considering Leighton wasn’t even in the Flyers’ system three weeks ago. The Flyers claimed him on re-entry waivers from Carolina on Dec. 15 to backup Brian Boucher in the absence of Ray Emery, who was out with abdominal surgery. Leighton was given the chance to start when Boucher went down with a cut on his right ring finger.
“When I was looking around, I couldn’t help but smile [Thursday],” Leighton said. “When I knew I was coming to Philly, I knew this was a part of it. My wife and I talked about it – that’s one of the first things we talked about. To get the start here is just a bonus.
“It’s not something you get to do every day.”
For the latest Winter Classic updates, follow Frank Seravalli on Twitter (http://twitter.com/DNFlyers) during the game.
Ian Laperriere gave a pretty in-depth look at his childhood, growing up in Montreal and playing hockey on their outdoor city rinks in Thursday's paper.
Please check back here for postgame video with a recap from Fenway Park on Friday.