"I'm about as humbled a man as you can find anywhere. The honor and privilege of wearing that jersey, being a Ranger and playing at Madison Square Garden was more than privilege enough."
-- Adam Graves
If you're going to be both praised and scorned during your tenure with an NHL club, it's better to be scorned at the start and praised long before the end, like Adam Graves was during his 10-year career with the New York Rangers.
Graves will become the fourth member of the Rangers' 1994 Stanley Cup championship team to have his number retired when his No. 9 is raised to the Madison Square Garden rafters at a ceremony Tuesday night prior to the Rangers' game against the Atlanta Thrashers. The Rangers previously retired the numbers of Mike Richter, Mark Messier and Brian Leetch.
"In many ways, it's overwhelming," said Graves. "I'm about as humbled a man as you can find anywhere. The honor and privilege of wearing that jersey, being a Ranger and playing at Madison Square Garden was more than privilege enough.
"I remember a year ago, when Brian took time out from his night to convey that message supporting me, I felt a great deal of weight. It hasn't dissipated; it's gotten heavier. On Feb. 22 they will retire Harry Howell's No. 3 and Andy Bathgate's No. 9. I'm a hockey fan. I know the history of the Original Six teams. I know Andy Bathgate and Harry Howell. I got to play with Mike Richter, Mark Messier and Brian Leetch. Rod Gilbert is a good friend, as is Eddie Giacomin. These are the great New York Rangers.
"To share No. 9 with Andy Bathgate, one of the greatest No. 9s of all time, right up there with Rocket Richard, Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe, makes me overwhelmingly humbled. It's really hard to put into words how special and honored I feel."
Messier said the honor is well deserved.
"Adam Graves has the ability to make everybody feel like he is their best friend and the fans of New York feel that way," Messier said. "Adam will be remembered as one of the all-time great Rangers for what he did on the ice. He was responsible for bringing the Stanley Cup to New York. And for what he did off the ice that, for me, is the mark of a true champion.
"It's one thing to hold up a trophy. It's something altogether more important to live your life as a champion, and he has done that."
"I was lucky," Leetch said. "With myself, Adam, Mike Richter and Mark Messier, we went through a lot together, coming in at the same time. We had similar personalities and meshed well. We were lucky to have a leader like Mark. Adam had similar feelings, like Mark, and he did a good job in bringing out the best in all of us.
"For Adam to have a night like this and the three of us having gone through it previously -- he was happy for us on our nights -- it will be nice to see him on the other side and see him enjoy it."
Graves has been a New York hero for 15 years, but it wasn't always this way.
Rangers fans and the media alike were upset when General Manager Neil Smith signed Graves, a three-year pro, to a free-agent contract in 1991 and lost Troy Mallette to the Edmonton Oilers as compensation. Graves had scored only 7 goals the previous season and 23 in stints with the Oilers and the Detroit Red Wings, who made him their second-round pick (No. 22) in the 1986 Entry Draft.
The Oilers weren't overly pleased, either. They wanted Louie DeBrusk and Steven Rice as compensation. Smith fed the Oilers' hunger at the start of the 1991-92 season by dealing those two players and Bernie Nicholls for Mark Messier and future considerations (Jeff Beukeboom for David Shaw on Nov. 12, 1991).
Messier laughed when reminded of the "domino effect" the Graves signing had on his subsequent trade to New York.
"I had so much going on when I got traded, I didn't realize that," Messier said. "I knew the players being traded but I didn't know all the proceedings that were going on."
Graves said he saw an opportunity when he signed with New York, but had no idea of the impact it would have on his life.
"When I reflect back on what happened in 1991, it was a fantastic opportunity and one that I'll be forever thankful."
In two moves, Smith built two-thirds of the Rangers' first line that won them the 1994 Stanley Cup. Smith had been the Red Wings' scouting director who drafted Graves and believed he should have been a top-six forward instead of being used as a checking-line player as Detroit and Edmonton had done.
"Very few players can come in and dominate and be put in responsible positions and have the pressure of carrying the team like the first two lines do," Messier said. "Usually a young guy comes in and plays with less pressure so he can get comfortable with the pace of play. He started in Detroit and got traded to Edmonton. When we got him, he was a young, strong kid with great character. I had heard that about him in juniors. He came with high credentials.
"The only thing he lacked was the experience and confidence to do it at that level."
Messier said many people underestimated Graves' importance in helping the Oilers win the 1990 Stanley Cup.
"He played on the line with Joe Murphy and Martin Gelinas that catapulted us to the Stanley Cup in 1990," Messier said. "They played a lot and they played great, all strong skaters. They took it to the other team and were a load for the other team to handle."
Graves paid immediate dividends in New York, scoring 26 goals in 1991-92 and 36 goals in 1992-93. He saved his biggest performance for the championship season, scoring a career-high 52 goals and 79 points, and then adding 10 goals and 14 points in 23 Stanley Cup Playoff games.
"Adam was our go-to guy, our foundation, whereas Mark was our leader," Leetch said. "Adam did everything. He stood in front of the net, stepped in physically when we needed it, and was the best friend to so many players off the ice. He worked his butt off. Anytime we had adversity, people looked to him as the steadying influence. We felt comfortable looking to him because of the respect we had for him.
"We had great special teams with Adam, the screens he set on power plays for Sergei Zubov and me, and Mark on the half wall," Leetch added. "The power play won a lot of games for us. He played the penalty kill, five-on-five, and the No. 1 line. Teams tried to check that line but the different styles of play and the strength of those players made it difficult."
"Adam was always out there blocking shots and he had deceiving speed. He was such a powerful skater. … If you had him shoulder to shoulder, you couldn't stop him. You had to be in front of him. He skated well enough to create opportunities for himself."
"When we got to New York, Adam was a centerman and we started playing together early on," Messier said. "When Mike Keenan came in, he played 'Gravy' with me and Steve Larmer after we got Steve from Hartford for James Patrick. We had a few different wingers. Alex Kovalev was on our line sometimes. 'Gravy' and I stayed together.
"We came off a tough year in 1992-93, not making the playoffs, and there were a lot of changes," Messier said. "We came back hungry to training camp. Keenan came in and set some ground rules, holding everyone's feet to the fire. Adam was the premier left winger in the game, killing penalties, power plays, fighting or checking. He was playing in every situation and playing a lot. You can't look past his importance to the team on the ice, let alone off the ice.
"Few players have gone beyond what he has done off the ice and the way he has conducted himself. It was a great year for the team and for him and it was the best year in his career, culminating with bringing the Stanley Cup back to New York."
"It was an accomplishment that we feel to this day that we were a part of and you would be hard pressed to equate a feeling like the one we had," Graves said. "There is not a more passionate fan than a New York Rangers fan, so to have accomplished that after 54 years, at home, in Game 7, at the Garden, it was very special. I can't imagine anything in sports being more special than that."
A few weeks after winning the Stanley Cup, the NHL honored Graves with the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for his leadership and noteworthy humanitarian contributions to the community. Graves' father was in law enforcement and his parents were foster parents to over 40 children. His effort in support of charities, his hospital visits and continuing communication with sick children went far beyond the call of duty.
But Graves didn't see those things as duties; he saw them as opportunities to enrich himself.
"I'm just a big kid," said Graves. "My wife Violet gets confused whether she has three or four kids. That's the best part, and one of the great privileges of playing in the NHL, playing a game that you love. You get to meet and be part of so many things that you wouldn't have the opportunity to do if you were not an athlete.
"At these events I'm having fun, but there are people in the background that put in the hard work. There are so many worthwhile organizations that give you a chance to be part of their work. We meet kids that we befriend and learn from and that's life, learning from different people, not just your mom, dad, teachers and teammates.
"From so many of these people, I learned courage and perseverance and dedication and hard work. That's what has been special to me over the years, the learning. We all make mistakes, but you try to do your best, wake up with a smile on your face and try to enjoy life with the people nearest you.
"I simplified things and that's what made me grow as a player and as a person."