New England Patriots' tight end Rob Gronkowski wears a Boston Bruins jersey at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, where the Bruins will play the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL Winter Classic outdoor hockey game on New Year's Da
Michael Dwyer
December 31, 2015

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Bill Belichick took to the Gillette Stadium ice for a morning skate with Bruins coach Claude Julien on Thursday, then took his team to south Florida for what has become an important football game on Sunday.

The Patriots need a win against the Miami Dolphins to secure the top seed in the AFC. Had they taken care of business against the New York Jets last Sunday, this week's game would have been meaningless.

Belichick hosted Julien at Patriots practice Wednesday and then showed up at an early-morning pre-skate media conference Thursday wearing a Winter Classic hat. He had the hat on backward, but the spirit was there.

''I'm ready for that Winter Classic, yes sir. What's that going on, `Snapface?' Get that on there - good,'' said Belichick, whose team's routine has been upset by the hockey game and its preparation; the Patriots were forced to go to Florida a day early. ''I'm pretty excited.''

Talking about Julien, Belichick, who told the hockey coach, `'Welcome to our house'' on Wednesday, said: ''I love Claude. He's a great guy. I think we probably have a lot in common just in the way we coach and look at the game and look at the team and things like that.''

''I mean I don't know anything about hockey, but it's a pretty simple game - put the puck in the net. No, I love Claude and the job that he's done.''

Belichick had skated before Thursday and Julien, through the Bruins' Twitter page, reported, ''From the second he put his skates on until the finish he improved quite a bit.''

''We didn't have a lot of ice in Maryland, but skated at Andover (in prep school), skated (at) Wesleyan,'' Belichick said. ''I played in the old huff-and-puff league when I was in New Jersey with the Giants.''

His players probably won't get to see Friday's hockey game.

''We'll probably have practice or something,'' said tight end Rob Gronkowski, a hockey player until ninth grade who met the media Thursday wearing a Bruins' Classic jersey and a Classic hat and scarf. ''We practice every day, all day long, so we probably won't have time to watch a game.''

Gronkowski, who said broadcaster Jeremy Roenick set him up with the hat and scarf, predicted he would be a left wing in hockey. ''Defense is cool, but I need the action, so left wing.

''I was super aggressive. Fights, goals scored, checks,'' he said, adding he gave up hockey for basketball. He described himself as `pretty good' adding, `I'm all right now whenever I go back and play with my friends back home, but I used to play with all the top dogs growing up back in Buffalo. But I don't (have) those skills really, anymore.''

The Bruins will be home watching the Patriots play Sunday, Julien saying ''probably 90 percent of our players are big-time Patriots fans.''

Another connection? Both goalies in Friday's game, Boston Tuukka Rask and Montreal's Mike Condon, who hails from nearby Holliston, Massachusetts, are breaking out Patriots-themed masks for the game.

NOTES: Safety Devin McCourty, who has missed the last two games with an ankle injury, couldn't say Thursday whether he can play this Sunday. ''I'm taking it one day at a time, trying to get back out there as soon as possible,'' he said. Asked if he had to venture a guess, he smiled and said, ''I don't venture guesses.'' . Defensive end Rob Ninkovich, on the injury report Wednesday with a shin issue, was off the list Thursday.

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Online: AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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