NEW YORK – Adam Graves’ greatness isn’t measured in numbers – although it could be.
It isn’t about his grit on the ice or his unfailing dedication to his team, and more importantly his teammates – although it could be. If he were asked to describe what he does best, Graves’ answer would be about how he is a people person and how he strives to make the community better. Not because he was a great hockey player, but because the teachings of humility and caring instilled by his parents are the very things that power his days.
For that, as much as his vast contribution to the New York Rangers’ long-awaited Stanley Cup championship team in 1994, is why his No. 9 was retired to the Madison Square Garden rafters Tuesday night.
“He really is the guy you see,” longtime teammate Mark Messier said. “He always gave of himself, to charities, to children. He always had time for everybody. He wasn’t doing it for recognition. He was doing it because that’s who he is.”
Call Graves the peoples’ champion.
His speech was halted several times by chants of “Gravy! Gravy!” and “Let’s Go Rangers!” He paused to keep himself composed, and managed to hold it together.
“It was hard, in all the best ways, to get through,” he said. “I was very, very, very humbled.”
Graves was feted by former teammates who presented him with a guitar signed by Bruce Springsteen, one of his favourite musicians, and was surprised by the appearance of the cast of “The Sopranos.”
“For me. Adam Graves,” he said in astonishment.
On his long walk to the ice Tuesday, Graves shook hands with police officers and firefighters he met during his Rangers tenure as well as many disabled children associated with the Garden Of Dreams charity, who lined the hallways.
He rubbed his forehead and his eyes welled up with tears as current Rangers captains Chris Drury, Scott Gomez and Markus Naslund skated out with the banner. When it ascended to the ceiling, Graves wrapped his arms around nine-year-old son, Logan, and bent over to kiss him when he saw his dad crying.
“I said, ‘It’s OK,”‘ Graves recalled. He told his son, “‘I’m crying because I’m happy.”
Along with captain Messier, defenceman Brian Leetch, and goalie Mike Richter, Graves became beloved by Rangers fans, who endured 54 years of futility between titles from 1940 until 1994.
“I get it. I understand how lucky I was. To be honoured among them is humbling,” he said of his teammates, whose numbers are retired.
Graves walked toward the tunnel after the hour-long ceremony along with the trio of teammates, but Messier urged him back to centre ice – where the Stanley Cup and other trophies won by Graves were on display – to receive another standing ovation.
“It’s his night,” said Messier, who introduced him. “It’s tough enough having someone throw you a birthday party, let alone that. It was right for him to go out there and take a last bow. This is New York, the biggest stage.”
Graves is different from his better-known teammates. He was appreciated for his talent, surprisingly breaking the team record for goals in a season when he struck 52 times in that championship year, yet it was his personal connection to the everyday people he met that made him stand out.
“Our fans?” Richter asked. “I think he’s met every one of them. I think they had a sleepover once.”
Graves is undying in his efforts to make people happy. He staged annual drives to get gifts to kids who otherwise would be without. When labour strife shut down hockey, Graves still was out there in the holiday season.
After all, just because there weren’t games didn’t mean someone’s Christmas should be ruined.
These lessons were taught by his parents, Henry and Lynda. Henry, who died several years ago, was a Toronto police officer. He worked hard walking the beat, yet always was there for his family. Graves was given an honorary New York city police badge in memory of his father.
Henry was loving and tough. Adam Graves took it all in, and nothing makes him happier than to see his three children smile. Not a unique emotion for a parent, but Graves would seemingly do anything to brighten the day of a child or anyone else he extends his hand to for a firm shake.
If Graves was too sick to fulfil his childhood paper route duties, someone else in the family picked up the slack. When the hockey team Graves’ father coached didn’t have enough players to have a game, young Adam was thrown on the ice in full equipment to just stand there and make sure the team wouldn’t forfeit.
“They always told me, ‘As much as you give, you get,”‘ Graves said.
All those thoughts, along with those of shooting pucks into his father’s baseball glove in the driveway as a kid, ran through his head during the festivities that preceded the Rangers’ game against the Atlanta Thrashers.
“In many ways this is a tribute to my dad,” Graves said. “I learned from my dad and my parents that everything was about family, that you sacrifice for each other, and that you wake up every day with a smile on your face.”
Full-page newspaper ads, all-day television coverage, and the brightest of Broadway spotlights trumpeted the celebration of Graves’ career on Tuesday. He never sought the attention, didn’t ask for it, and wouldn’t even go as far as to say that he yearned for it.
For 10 years he gave everything he had to the Rangers. If that meant planting himself in front of the net for a full, nasty playoff series against the New Jersey Devils in which punishment was a certainty, he gladly did it. If it meant slamming an opponent who delivered too hard of a hit to Leetch, or even dropping the gloves to protect a teammate, that was part of his job he readily embraced.
“Everybody will be celebrating not only Adam as a player and the Stanley Cup and 50 goals and the cuts on his face and the fights and all that,” Leetch said, “but they’ll actually be celebrating the man and what he meant to the community. I find that to be a really unique situation.”
Messier, with the steel jaw and unwavering strength that came with being the ultimate team captain, warmly called Graves his “lieutenant.”
When it was suggested that Messier didn’t need such a right-hand man during a career that produced six Stanley Cup titles, the questioner was quickly cut off. “Oh yes I did. Yes, I did.”
“We always looked to Mark as our leader, and Mike was our most important player being the goalie, but he was our foundation,” Leetch said. “He was our heart and soul.”
Graves, who works in the team’s hockey and business operations department, spent 10 years with New York. He is third on the Rangers’ career list in goals (280), 10th in points (507) and ninth in games (772).
While there was never doubt that Messier (No. 11), Richter (No. 35) and Leetch (No. 2) would be immortalized at the Garden, recognition for Graves was hardly a certainty.
It wasn’t until Leetch made the announcement a year ago during his jersey-retirement ceremony, that Graves’ honour became a reality.
“My heart is still absolutely pounding out of my chest,” Graves said when it was over. “I don’t know if you can tell.”
Graves is the last person from the ’94 team who will have his number retired.
“I always looked at (wearing the Rangers jersey) as a privilege, and I always will,” he said. “This is beyond anything I could ever have imagined.”