Few players have worn a New York Rangers
jersey with more pride and passion than Adam Graves
. Because of that, no Ranger will ever wear No. 9 again.
The Rangers raised Graves' number to the rafters of Madison Square Garden before their game with the Atlanta Thrashers on Tuesday night, honoring a player whose grit and talent were more than matched by his work ethic to try to make the community better.
"He really is the guy you see," said longtime teammate Mark Messier, whose No. 11 now hangs next to Graves' No. 9. "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."
Along with Messier, defenseman Brian Leetch, and goalie Mike Richter, Graves became beloved by Rangers fans, who endured 54 years of futility between titles from 1940 until 1994. That core ended the longest title drought in NHL history -- with Graves scoring the second goal in the Rangers' 3-2 victory over Vancouver in Game 7.
But Graves was different from his better-known teammates. Sure, he had talent -- he broke the franchise record for goals in 1993-94 with 52 -- but he was admired as much for his grit and his willingness to stand up for his teammates. Off the ice, he had a personal connection to the everyday people that that made him stand out.
"If he could, he would have walked up and down the aisle and shook everybody's hand," Richter told MSG Network after the ceremony.
Graves received a guitar signed by music legend Bruce Springsteen as well as a surprise visit (complete with framed "family" portrait and autographed hockey jersey) of the cast of "The Sopranos," one of his favorite TV shows.
In his speech, Messier cited Graves' stats -- but quickly noted that numbers alone were not what his former linemate was all about.
"Tonight is not about honoring Adam's stats," Messier said. "Tonight is about honoring a great man and a champion. Adam is an honorable man, a champion with real character.
"Adam delivered much more than the Stanley Cup," he continued. "Adam gave the Rangers credibility, honor and integrity."
Then came the tears -- seemingly a trademark of any ceremony involving "The Captain."
Graves was better able than Messier to hold himself together as he went through innumerable thank you's -- from ex-teammates to former GM Neil Smith and coach Colin Campbell to the current Rangers players and coach and the Madison Square Garden staffers who put together his "night."
In addition to Messier, Leetch and Richter, all of whom have had their numbers retired, Graves saluted Hall of Famers Rod Gilbert and Ed Giacomin, the first two Rangers to be so honored. He also paid tribute to '60s Ranger stars and Hall of Famers Andy Bathgate and Harry Howell, who will have their numbers retired on Feb. 22. Bathgate, like Graves, wore No. 9.
"To those who preceded me in Ranger glory and greatness, the men who epitomize this sweater -- to my friends Rod Gilbert and Eddie Giacomin, and, in 19 days to Harry Howell and Andy Bathgate, I am awed to share this honor," Graves said. "I especially want to thank Mr. Bathgate. Forever sharing No. 9 with you above the ice means everything to me."
After his No. 9 was raised to the rafters by current captain Chris Drury and alternates Scott Gomez and Markus Naslund, Graves made his last thank you -- to the fans.
"Being a New York Ranger and playing here at Madison Square Garden was more, way more, than privilege enough," he said in wrapping up his speech. "Tonight's honor was overwhelming, and I thank you."
Judging by the number and volume of the ovations all night long, the feeling was mutual.