Former New York Rangers forward Adam Graves needed three words to sum up the feeling around Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.
"A tough day," Graves said.
New York City police officer Steven McDonald, a lifelong fan of the Rangers, who named an award for him that has been given out at New York's last home game of every season since 1987-88, died Tuesday of a heart attack. He was 59.
McDonald, who was paralyzed by a gunshot wound while on patrol in Central Park on July 12, 1986, left an indelible mark on the Rangers, who honored him with the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award, given to the player judged by the fans to go above and beyond the call of duty each season.
Graves won the award a record five times (1991-94, 1998-2000). Other winners include Hockey Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Brian Leetch and Mark Messier, as well as Henrik Lundqvist, Mats Zuccarello (twice) and Ryan Callahan (twice), among many more.
"To the franchise, the city of New York, he is a true hero," Graves said. "A hero in actions, a hero in his words, a hero in his beliefs and a hero in the way he cared for people and advocated for the world to be a safer place. There probably isn't a policeman in New York City that he did not know. He did many, many speeches and he went to schools to talk to kids. As far as the New York Rangers organization, he was such a huge part of who we are, and we were so proud and privileged to have him as part of our organization and to have an award named after someone who is truly a hero. That term couldn't be used more appropriately in this man's honor."
Graves said McDonald, who always presented the award on the ice with his wife, Patti Ann, and his son, Conor, an NYPD detective, often spoke about his love of hockey and his love of the Rangers.
"I've been fortunate enough to have the privilege of meeting him back in 1991, and then to get to know him for nearly three decades and understand how much he loved the game, how passionate he was, and how much he enjoyed it," Graves said. "Certainly he shared that passion with Conor and Patti Ann. No one ever wanted to miss the presentation of the Steven McDonald Award. To have him in the building and to hear him speak, I mean, it was one of those moments that every Rangers fan, everyone in the building, media too, looked forward to."
Graves said winning the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award remains one of the "humbling privileges" of his life because he got to stand beside McDonald when he accepted the award.
"It really resonated with me because my dad was a policeman for close to 30 years," Graves said. "I felt a real connection personally. I know to Conor, his dad was just an incredible man, an incredible father and his hero. I grew up the son of a policeman, and that was my hero, my dad. I liked hockey, but the hero in my life was my father, and he was a policeman. So for me personally, there was a real connection. Probably to a certain degree it made it more humbling to stand beside him."
Despite calling it a tough day for the Rangers organization and New York, Graves said he also was using his time Tuesday to reflect on McDonald and how he lived his life despite being left paralyzed more than 30 years ago.
McDonald remained on active duty in the NYPD and was promoted to detective in 1995. The New York Daily News reported that hundreds of police officers were lined up outside the emergency room at North Shore University Hospital on Tuesday awaiting the removal of McDonald's body.
"When you think of Steven, you just think of what he represented, everything that is good in humanity," Graves said. "You have a heavy heart, but at the same time you want to smile because he just made you feel so good. That was what he was all about. The Steven McDonald Award will probably, if it's possible, take on even more meaning because he's a man that represents everything that is good."