There are two sides to every hockey player -- the one you see on the ice and the one away from the rink.
|Adam Graves celebrates his playoff series-winning goal against New Jersey with Blueshirts teammate Russ Courtnall on May 11, 1997, at the Meadowlands. Courtnall recorded the primary assist. |
I have had the good fortune to view Adam Graves in his professional milieu as well as in a more anonymous setting.
Without fear of contradiction -- since I'm making the statement first-hand -- I can say that I've never known an athlete who was so exceptional as a performer and so perfect as a people-person.
Of course, interest in Adam would be considerably minimized had he not become a hockey headliner with vast repertoire of skills and a dossier sprinkled with accomplishments of which other National Hockey League players merely can dream.
Speaking from the vantage point of print journalist and television analyst, I look back to one goal which, to me, exemplified the strength, will to win and skill of this accomplished goal-scorer.
For this, we flip back the calendar to the 1996-97 NHL season and the flowering of a vibrant rivalry between the Rangers and New Jersey Devils.
Historians will say that the roots of this rivalry can be traced to the early 1980s when the Blueshirts routinely mauled the Meadowlands sextet. The turnabout came in the 1987-88 season when coach (now Rangers assistant general manager) Jim Schoenfeld's Jerseyites staged a stirring homestretch drive culminating with a final night ouster of the New Yorkers from a playoff berth.
By 1993-94, the two clubs had waged many a war game on ice but none like the semifinal playoff round in the Spring of 1994. Trailing three games to two, the Rangers rallied behind captain Mark Messier, won the next pair and rolled on to a seven-game triumph over Vancouver and The Stanley Cup.
A year later the Devils were drinking champagne -- thereby cementing the rivalry, setting the stage for innumerable epic performances and one, in particular, by friend Graves.
This was the Spring of 1997, Rangers vs. Devils once more.
No longer an NHL placemat, the Devils has established an firm identity under general manager Lou Lamoriello and such future Hall of Famers as defenseman Scott Stevens and goalie Martin Brodeur.
But the Rangers were good, too, and in fact led the playoff series three games to one heading into Game Five at East Rutherford.
Not surprisingly, the match encompassed all the elements of sporting suspense, moving into sudden-death overtime with the clubs tied at one goal apiece.
May 11th may have been Mother's Day but nobody on the ice was trying a little tenderness.
"Our games with New Jersey always were hard-fought," said Graves, "and this one was no different."
I can vouch for that. Covering the game for SportsChannel, I always located myself at the Zamboni entrance and managed to prop myself atop one of the steel aisle-dividers to get the best possible view of the ice and goal being guarded in that end by Brodeur.
As the teams traded chances in the extra session, I wondered whether we were going to witness not one but two overtimes. The clock had passed the half-way mark, moved on to 11 minutes, then 12 and, soon, 13.
Then, it happened.
Just as the clock ticked to the 14-minute mark New York attacked deep into New Jersey territory with Graves nimbly orchestrating the drive.
Eventually, the puck skimmed into the left corner where Adam corralled it, hustling from the left to right side while looking for a teammate to whom he could pass the biscuit.
There was only one problem; future Hall of Famer Scott Stevens had placed his bulk between the backside of the net and the Rangers left wing. Those who had seen the formidable Devils defenseman in action realized that it would be virtually impossible to outmuscle Stevens for a behind-the-net pass.
Graves’ radar was well-synchronized, so he moved on to Plan B. If he couldn't distribute a pass for a play on Brodeur, Adam would do the next-best thing; were it possible.
For just a precious moment, it seemed as if the play was unfolding in slow motion.
There was the Ranger, relentlessly bulling his way out on the right side, from behind the net and there was the Devil, suddenly unable to match his foe stride for stride.
As Stevens wilted, Graves gained even more strength and now had worked his way free enough to actually deliver a shot on net as he skated over the goal line.
To some on lookers from Rangerville, the play had "deja-vu" written all over it.
"Adam is doing a Stephane Matteau," one New York fan screamed, harking back to Matteau's double-overtime thrust that beat Brodeur in the 1994 seventh-game classic.
And so he was.
While the Devils netminder scrambled to jam his left skate against the goal post, the puck wasn't waiting.
Released by Graves, the rubber disk managed to squeeze into the momentarily unguarded corner and that WAS that; RANGERS 2, DEVILS 1. WINNING GOAL -- ADAM GRAVES.
What made it so special -- apart from the fact that his goal was the series-clincher -- was how it symbolized the perserverance and grim determination that had been the hallmark of Adam's playing career.
My other favorite Graves anecdote really was so simple a gesture that I would hesitate to even mention it except for its significance in displaying the man's good nature.
This was during the 2000-01 season in mid-Winter.
I was part of an MSG-TV crew that was heading out to do a feature and we were lining up our equipment on 33rd Street just outside the players' entrance.
It was mid-day, and the Rangers had finished their practice, dressed and were heading for home. While we awaited our van, the swinging doors opened and out walked a couple of the Blueshirts, led by my old buddy from Islanders days, defenseman Rich Pilon.
He was on one side of the metal barrier and I was on the other so he waved a greeting and then headed for Eighth Avenue. A few other Rangers with whom I was friendly did likewise; a smile, a wave and then across 33rd for lunch. All of which was very nice and as much as I could expect.
Just as our van pulled up, the door opened again and there was Adam who -- in all fairness -- I had hardly known as well as the others and, therefore, shouldn't have expected more than a smile.
And that's precisely what he did. The infectious grin immediately made me feel about fifty-percent better but that wasn't all.
Instead of heading to Eighth Avenue or crossing the street with his teammates, Adam circled the barrier, walked all the way over to little old me standing amidst the camera and equipment.
"How're ya doin'?" he said while pumping my hand.
Normally, I'm not taken aback but, this time, I was taken 'way, 'way aback; about as far as possible.
We then exchanged a moment's worth of pleasantries and I told Graves, I had to take off on assignment.
As he waved good-bye, I mentioned quietly to myself, "Now why did he go to all that trouble to shake hands and make me feel so good?"
The answer comes easy now as it did then; because he is Adam Graves!