Adam Fox Making It Look Easy in Rookie Season With Rangers

After leaving Harvard for the 2019–20 season, Adam Fox is skating 18-plus minutes per game and ranks third among all rookie blueliners with 29 points, a key piece of the rebuilding Rangers’ future.
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“Ask him about his feet! His stinky feet!”

The shout carries across the Rangers locker room, reaching Adam Fox at his stall. The rookie defenseman had just begun speaking with a reporter after a recent practice at the team’s training facility in Tarrytown, N.Y. when winger Chris Kreider had interrupted to fire a shot that, for obvious reasons, required an instant pivot in the line of questioning. And so Fox explains.

Last May, amid some down time at the IIHF world championships in Slovakia, a group of Team USA players—including Kreider—were hanging out in Fox’s hotel room, holding an NHL tournament on Xbox. At some point, everyone evidently caught a whiff of some fierce podalic pungency and dropped their controllers to investigate.

Suspicion initially fell upon his roommate, Panthers forward Frank Vatrano. But the true source was soon sniffed out: a pair of ratty Nikes belonging to Fox. At Kreider’s insistence, the 21-year-old was made to chuck the sneakers in the garbage can. (“His room was brutes,” Kreider recalls.) A nickname was also born, Foxy the Foot, which endured among the American players until they lost to Russia in the quarterfinals and flew home for the summer.

“Kreids wasn’t too happy,” Fox says. “They were smelly, so I’ll give him that. I’d had them for a while. But, hey, maybe that’s who I am—a one-pair-of-shoes guy.”

He shrugs. “I’ve got a few more now. Little more of a budget.”

Yes, life has changed for Fox. Not just because he is earning a max entry-level salary ($925,000 plus bonuses) that will no doubt balloon when his contract expires in two years, more than enough to buy a closetful of Jordans and a medicine cabinet of Dr. Scholl’s if he desires. And not only because he has thus far delivered on his potential after leaving Harvard for the ‘19–20 season, skating 18-plus minutes per game through Monday and ranking third among all rookie blueliners with 29 points, a key piece of the rebuilding Rangers’ future.

But because few hockey players have ever gotten to experience what Fox does on a daily basis, starting when he first stepped onto the ice at Madison Square Garden on opening night.

“When you skate around and they introduce everyone,” he says, “that for me was like, ‘Holy s---, this is crazy.’”

***

Five months earlier, Fox was again in shock. He had been relaxing in his junior year dorm room at Harvard’s Mather House when now-agent Matt Keator called to deliver some major news: The Rangers had acquired Fox’s rights from Carolina for two draft picks, paving the way for the Long Island native to join the team that he was raised to root for from birth. “Oh my god, no way,” Fox recalls replying. Looking to clear his head, he headed outside and took a quick stroll along the nearby Charles River. Then he dialed his dad. “I think he was pretty surprised too,” Fox says.

Bruce and Tammy Fox had held season tickets for decades by the time Adam was born in February 1998, so his rooting interests were never in doubt. As a kid, many nights were spent hopping aboard the LIRR near their home in Jericho, N.Y., hopping off at Penn Station in Midtown, and cheering from high above center ice. Many days were spent “getting in arguments about the Rangers” at grade school, where he was outnumbered among Islanders diehards.

In the same breath, Fox is quick to note that he “wasn’t that crazy of a fan.” He doesn’t remember owning any Rangers jerseys or displaying any memorabilia in his room. He also had no qualms with occasionally making the short trip to watch Isles practice and ask players for autographs. Bruce, on the other hand, bled Blueshirts. “He’d be pretty mad if they lost,” Fox says. “In general, my personality is not like that. I’d be telling him, ‘Relax, it’s a game.’”

Now, as then, Fox operates with a cool disposition. “The line I use is: He’s so calm, cool, collected, he’s ordering a martini when the plane goes down,” Keator says. Watch him spin away from a forecheck behind the Rangers net and spark a breakout with a crisp pass, or settle a bobbling puck at the offensive point and generate a scoring chance. The NHL has never been faster, and Fox has no issues keeping pace. But he has foremost earned respect among peers for another, contradictory ability. “His ability to slow it down is really impressive,” Kreider says. “How he manipulates [opponents] to create time and opportunity for himself and his teammates.”

Take, for instance, how he burned the Isles at MSG last month. Drifting backwards toward the blue line with possession, Fox baited winger Anthony Beauvillier into taking away the middle of the ice before cutting back, dashing down the boards, and rattling a wrister past goalie Semyon Varlamov. “It’s really important for me to take that extra second,” Fox says, generally. “Something that wasn’t there might be there. Or something that was there might close … Growing up, I was never the biggest guy, never the fastest guy, never had the hardest shot, but always thought the game at a pretty high level. I think that’s always helped me.”

Harvard coach Ted Donato refers to Fox as a “cerebral player,” and it isn’t hard to see why. “His level of deception and his ability to give off false information because of his stick positioning, his eyes, his body, his head fakes …” Donato says, trailing off. “It reminds me of [Hall of Fame Bruins defenseman] Brad Park. He was like that when he first stepped on campus.”

Naturally Fox chose to major in psychology at Harvard, curious about “how people think, why people are the way they are.” Sometimes he applied a sports-specific lens to his studies; one paper for a health psych class researched reputedly clutch athletes such as Tom Brady and Joe Montana. (The secret? “A lot of preparation.”) But Fox was most interested in branching out from his future day job; one of his favorite classes focused on early childhood development. Now he is five classes away from graduating. “I’ve heard that they don’t let you take more than two classes in a summer,” Fox says. “But if I could take three, I’d try to squeeze that in.”

Indeed, intelligence may define his game—“He’s one of the top five smart players I’ve watched in my 30 years,” Keator says—but Fox works hard too. It’s how he rocketed from one of the last players chosen for the U.S. national team development program in ‘14–15 to one of the under-17 squad’s best defensemen in mere months. Donato brings up a game from Fox’s freshman season in January 2017, one day after the teenager won gold with Team USA at the world junior championships. Fresh off a late-arriving bus from Montreal, fueled only by McDonald’s from a hasty rest stop, Fox cruised into the Crimson locker room an hour before puck drop and dished out two assists in a 5–2 win over ranked Quinnipiac.

“Ho-hum, unpacked his bag, got congratulated by all his teammates, all on very little sustenance and very little sleep, and made a couple plays that only he could make in college hockey,” Donato says. “Added to his lore of making it look easy.”

***

Contrary to what some fellow Rangers have mistakenly assumed this season, and despite what all of those childhood trips to the Garden might suggest, Fox isn’t a helpful resource on the ins and outs of Manhattan. “I had taken the subway before this year maybe twice in my life,” he says. “We’d take the LIRR, or sometimes drive, but I never went on the subway. People would ask me questions and I’m like, ‘I have no idea. I don’t know the city at all.’”

At the very least Fox is familiar with the 10-minute walk that he makes from his Hudson Yards apartment to each Rangers game—much shorter than his old commute from Long Island. But aside from fielding countless ticket requests and text messages sent by long-lost Long Island friends, Fox doesn't think much about his Rangers fandom now that he is working at MSG instead of watching from above. “Once you’re drafted by another team, it’s not like, ‘Let’s go Rangers!’” says Fox, who went in the third round to Calgary in 2016. “I guess I lost a little touch with some of that stuff.”

Still, there is something to be said about how Fox leveraged his way here in the first place. Packaged alongside Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland to the Hurricanes in June 2018, Fox made it known that he was perfectly happy to wield his leverage as an NCAA player, return to Harvard for his senior season, and become a free agent the following summer—unless he wound up in New York. “You obviously don’t want to garner a reputation,” Fox says. “But for me, it’s what I’ve wanted to do, and I think a lot of guys, if they had that opportunity, they’d try to do that. Even though I loved being at school, it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.”

Clearly things are working out in his favor, even if the Rangers (25-22-4, 54 points) will be hard-pressed to make a playoff run this season. Fox once owned a Boston College hockey jersey onto which his dad stitched defenseman Brian Leetch’s name and number. On Jan. 3, Fox became the first 21-year-old Rangers blueliner since Leetch with a three-assist game. And compared to the weekend-only college schedule, the 82-game NHL pace has required only minor adjustments from Fox. “I never took pregame naps, and now I find myself doing that before every game,” he reports. “I think that’s the one thing that’s really only changed.”

On the ice, Fox is as reliable as ever. “Smart, patient, really good offensively,” says Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren. “He’s obviously gotten better and better throughout the years, but his game has always been the same." Prior to Tuesday’s loss to Dallas, Fox was leading all Rangers players in on-ice shot attempt (51.96%) and scoring chance differential (52.50%) at 5-on-5 prior, according to Natural Stat Trick. On the other end, he has drawn rave reviews for his stickwork, strength and shiftiness in battles. “I don't think he gets enough credit for the way he can break the puck out and how hard he is to play against defensively,” Lindgren says.

Once the initial shock wore off from news of the trade, what with his childhood dreams being fulfilled and all that, Fox soon realized that he would have no issues transitioning to the next level. Reassurance came early into his first practice with Team USA at the world championships, where he was whipping passes to the likes of Patrick Kane and Johnny Gaudreau. “In terms of being aware of where I stood, I was like, ‘Alright, I’m not feeling like an absolutely bottom-of-the-barrel guy here, so out of place,’” he says.

Judging by the gears that Kreider continues giving him about his odorous kicks, Fox is fitting well among a young Rangers locker room too. For another example, though, consider this recent post-practice exchange between teammates Jacob Trouba and Brendan Smith:

“What’s the best way to describe him?” Trouba says of Fox. “He’s laid back. He’s pretty witty.”

“Kind of like a wiseass,” Smith replies.

“He’s not as smart. I don't know how he got into Harvard.”

“He likes to stir the pot. He’s witty.”

“Pretty funny. Good personality.”

“Yeah, good kid. From the shadows.”

“Oh, yeah, he’ll throw daggers from the back.”

“From the peanut gallery, for sure”

Daggers from the peanut gallery, dimes from the blue line. Nothing stinky about that.