The Big Interview: Rangers Defenseman Keith Yandle

Keith Yandle

Keith Yandle was celebrating eldest daughter’s Mila’s fourth birthday party when he realized he had missed a call that would change his life. Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney rang Yandle’s cell while he was at a “jumpy house” with family and friends.

Cell phone reception was spotty inside the bouncy castle. Yandle excused himself to call Maloney back. He would soon learn that he and his family were about to swap the laid-back Arizona desert for the hurried streets of Manhattan.

Yandle had known in the days leading up to the trade deadline that it was possible that the rebuilding Coyotes were going to deal him before the Mar. 2 trade deadline. One day before the trade deadline, Yandle was shipped to the Stanley Cup-contending New York Rangers in a blockbuster deal.

The 28-year-old defenseman sat down to talk one-on-one with XN Sports about how he’s acclimating to his new life in New York and his new role with the Rangers, the impending return of Henrik Lundqvist and the experience of being coached by Hall-of-Famer Ray Bourque in high school.

Having been raised four hours away in the sports-crazed city of Boston, New York isn’t a huge adjustment for Yandle.

“To embrace New York City as a whole, it’s a lot of fun,” Yandle said. “Arizona was a completely different pace. It’s a lot slower, everything is a lot more easygoing. Here, it’s faster-paced. It’s fun to be back on the East Coast. There’s something about it. You’re right on the Hudson. It’s a great city, it’s great to be here.”

New York is a city that both he and wife Kristyn are familiar with.

“She’s excited to be here, so it makes my life easier,” Yandle said. “Being a Boston girl, she’s spent a lot of time in New York. She would always take trips down here with her friends. She knows where all the shops are. We enjoy walking together and sampling the city.”

Four-year-old Mila already feels at home in the Big Apple.

“She loves it,” Yandle said. “She’s a little diva. She’s having a lot of fun here checking out the city, all the buildings and bright lights.”

Having grown up in Boston, it’s exciting for Yandle to be plying his trade in an ‘Original Six’ city. After all, one of Yandle’s best friends growing up in Boston was Chris Bourque, son of Hall-of-Famer and Bruins legend Ray Bourque.

Together, Keith and Chris played together at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, M.A. When Chris’ famous father retired from the Colorado Avalanche in 2001, he joined Cushing’s coaching staff.

“I got to grow up around Ray when he was playing,” Yandle said. “He coached me for two years in prep school. To see him helping out the team was pretty amazing. He was committed. He was there pretty much every day. He mostly ran the defense on our prep school team. To have his experience and what he brought to the game – having him help me out as a kid meant a lot. It really helped me.

“It was awesome. He was only one year out of the game, too. He had just won the Cup. To have a Hall-of-Fame, probably one of the best – if not the best defenseman to ever play helping you out at that age, in my draft year really helped me out.”

Yandle admits he gets “amped up” as he approaches Madison Square Garden.

“You go to the game and walk by restaurants and places like Dunkin Donuts – you see these places packed with Rangers jerseys,” Yandle said. “You kinda get a little more amped up before the game. Playing in this city, it gives you that extra motivation. It’s awesome to see.”

Yandle appreciates when fans recognize his face and say hello. He doesn’t mind posing for a quick picture.

“More and more, people have been coming up to me,” Yandle said. “Everybody has been really nice about it. It’s great. Sometimes fans will stop you and ask for a selfie or whatever. It’s pretty cool.”

As a Ranger, Yandle has immediately picked up on how hard teammates Martin St. Louis, Mats Zuccarello and Henrik Lundqvist work on a daily basis.

One of his first chances to really get to know St. Louis was at the 2011 NHL All-Star Game in Raleigh. Now as a teammate, Yandle has gotten the chance to study St. Louis’ habits closely.

“I knew he was a great guy,” Yandle said. “Everyone knows about his work ethic. Because I didn’t play with him, I didn’t realize until now how smart he is about the game. He’s a real X’s and O’s guy. It’s fun to pick his brain, knowing how much he knows about the game, what he sees on the ice and the way he explains it. He’s a fun guy to talk to.”

Yandle has described Zuccarello as a team-first player and one of the league’s most underrated players.

“He’s probably one of the most underrated guys in the league,” Yandle said. “In the West you don’t see him much. He’s so gifted offensively. He works so hard. He’s another one of those guys who only cares about the team. It’s fun to play alongside him and see the stuff he can do on the ice.”

He’s also noticed Zuccarello keeps the room loose. A number of teammates have described Zuccarello as the player with the best sense of a humor.

“He always has everyone laughing,” Yandle said. “He’s a fun guy to be around. Zucc is always cracking guys up in the room.”

The big news in New York is Lundqvist’s impending return to game action. On Tuesday, Lundqvist skated with teammates for the first time since Feb. 2.

“It was my first time being out there with him,” Yandle said. “It was a lot of fun. It looks like he’s in great form right now. You see how competitive he is between the pipes. He tries to make every save and doesn’t want to let anything in. When your best player is like that, everyone feeds off it.”

Teammates have taken Yandle to some of their favorite restaurants in Tribeca and the Meatpacking District.

“This city has the best food around,” Yandle said. “There’s a couple good spots that teammates have taken me. Everywhere I’ve been, the food is delicious. Serafina in the Meatpacking District was really good. I ordered a pasta dish with chicken and mushroom sauce. It was really good. We also went to Catch, which is in the same area. They’re known for really good sushi and seafood.”

It’s not just current players who are welcoming Yandle with open arms. Prior to his Rangers debut on Mar. 2, Hall-of-Famer and franchise legend Brian Leetch texted him. Like Bourque, Leetch was another defenseman that Yandle attempted to emulate during his youth.

“As a kid, you have guys that you try to be like and play like,” Yandle said. “He was one of the guys I looked up to. To be here and play on a team he played for is pretty cool. I really appreciated him reaching out to me.”

Having joined the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers, Yandle has the chance to emulate Leetch by delivering the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship since 1994.

“That’s what every guy here is motivated by,” Yandle said.

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Sean Hartnett
Sean Hartnett has covered the New York Rangers and the NHL for since 2011. He has covered two Stanley Cup Finals. Sean now contributes to XNSports’ NHL and general sports coverage. He devotes far too much of his free time watching Simpsons and Seinfeld reruns. Sean can be reached via Twitter @HartnettHockey.