The kids would arrive at any time, day or night. Adam Graves would have new brothers and sisters. Easy as that. He would fall asleep in the old house in North York, Ont., and in the morning he would feel someone moving above him on the top bunk, and that would mean he had a brother. He would hear a commotion in the hall, someone trying on dresses from the ever-present large cardboard box of clothes, and that would mean he had a sister. If there was a cry in the hall, followed by some soft words from his mother, that would mean a baby had entered the family. Brother, sister, whatever.
They were tired, these new kids. They often were dirty and usually were hungry and always were troubled. They had been sent to the house by a children's relief agency in Toronto, spinning from circumstances in which they had been abused or neglected or rejected. These were foster children, all ages, all sizes, all dispositions. They would stay for a week or a month or a couple of years, but while they were in the house, they were home. They were family.
"We were all treated the same," says Graves, the 25-year-old New York Ranger left wing. "We shared everything. I never fell that my mum or my dad loved these kids any less than they loved me or my two biological sisters. What I felt, mostly, was how fortunate I was that I had a family background. These kids were coming from situations where they had been in six, seven, eight different houses in three or four years. They were all looking for attention. More than anything, they wanted to be wanted."
He was the lucky one. He always knew that. He knew he was wanted.
April 10, 1994
"Did you see his quote when he scored the 51st goal in Edmonton to break the team record for scoring?" Ranger publicist Barry Watkins asked last week after Graves broke the mark set by Vic Hadfield in the 1971-72 season. "They gave him the puck, and he said, 7 wish I could cut it up into 25 pieces and give one to each of my teammates.' That was the quote you saw in all of the stories."
There was one kid who went to the garbage can whenever he was hungry. That was his history. When he thought about food, he thought about rummaging through a garbage can. There was another kid who walked in his sleep. There were kids who went to the bathroom in bureau drawers and in the middle of the floor. There was a kid with cerebral palsy. There was a kid who refused to talk. There was a kid who pulled a knife.
"What are you doing?" Lynda Graves, Adam's mother, said to that kid. "Don't be silly. Put that down."
She did not mind the constant bedlam, the turmoil. Her mother and father also had raised foster children, and she had been in charge of them since she was nine years old. Half of her dates with Henry, the Toronto policeman who would become her husband, had been baby-sitting adventures, two and three and four kids tagging along for the night. It seemed only natural that foster children would continue to be part of life after marriage. Henry agreed.
The house was run by rules and cooperation. Everyone had a job. Some of the new kids objected, say, to shoveling the front walk and tried to get five dollars to do the job. Lynda would explain that she didn't ask them for five dollars every time she cooked a meal, so they shouldn't ask her for five bucks when they did their work either. And if they had any doubts about what was right, well, they could always look at Adam. Did he complain? He simply did his jobs.
He was one of those kids who had a middle-aged maturity by the time he was about 10 years old. He awoke at 4:30 in the morning to deliver newspapers. He mowed lawns, he raked leaves, he cut bushes. This did not mean that he didn't have fun, but his jobs were always completed first, then he had fun. He had perspective.
"We'd say to him, 'Gravy, come on, we're going to play some golf,' " says Glen Featherstone, his best friend in the neighborhood and now a defenseman for the Boston Bruins. "He always had something else to do first. 'I'll meet you there,' he used to say. We always said, 'Gravy, you've never had a childhood.' He just laughed and went ahead, doing what he was doing. He never put you down for what you were doing. He just did what he did, and if you wanted to come along with him, fine. If you didn't, that was also fine."
More than 40 foster children moved through the house. Lynda's idea was that "there's always enough love for another child." She also said, "You have to go through life with broad shoulders." She was amazed at how many people had lost control of their children and their lives. The first lesson she tried to teach was respect. The house was run on a social contract. Everyone had to respect everyone else and everyone else's possessions. There was a time to go to bed and a time to wake up, and the time spent in front of the television was monitored and kept to a minimum. There was always someone in the house who was in charge. Structure was imposed on lives that had seen no structure.
Adam was the example of what a structured life could mean. See what you can do? When Adam was four years old, Henry had him playing hockey, and by the time he was six, he was an end-to-end terror, knocking down everyone in front of him on the way to the puck. When he himself was knocked down one time—knocked out, in fact—everyone else went running to the ice to see if he was hurt. Henry simply watched.
"He'll be all right," Henry said. "It's a good lesson for him. If you're going to knock other people down, you're going to be knocked down yourself sometimes. You receive what you give."
By the time he was 16, he was a first-round pick in the Canadian Junior A draft. He was a good-sized kid, basic, not a knock-your-eyes-out standout in any one category, but solid in all of them. He was chosen by the Windsor (Ont.) Spitfires. Featherstone also was chosen by the Spitfires, in the 12th round, and the two kids went to the team together, becoming part of a surrogate family in the house of Ken and Donna Parent.
"We'd had problems a year earlier with a kid who lived with us," Ken says. "The kid had been stealing, making our lives miserable. We were thinking that maybe we wouldn't have kids live with us anymore, but then Adam and Glen came, and that was a balance. Glen was a nice, normal kid and Adam...it was all very strange. I was the adult, the one who was supposed to be giving him guidance, but very soon it changed. He was the one who had the most maturity. I found myself learning so much more from him than he was learning from me."
See what you can do?
"I went to him during training camp this year," Ranger president and general manager Neil Smith said last week. "He was on the last year of his contract, and the market had changed and he was one of the last bargains [at $400,000 per year] in the league, one of the few guys who actually was underpaid. I told him we wanted to rip up the old contract and give him a new one. He shook his head. 'No,' he said. 'I've talked it over with my father, and I don't want that. I signed that contract, and I want to honor it. That's the way I am.' I said, 'Adam, it's all right. We want to do this. Believe me. We are the ones who want to change the contract. Believe me, it'll he all right.' "
He has become a star. That is his story now. The Ranger scoring record he broke was 22 years old. He has been the best player on what has been the best team in the league for the entire season. He was named to the All-Star team for the first time. There is a chance, depending on the Rangers' finish, that he might be the league MVR The contract, of course, has been reworked, and he is on the first year of a six-year deal worth an estimated $14 million.
He still is not a stylist. The total length of all the shots he has used to score his 51 goals probably equals the distance on one Brett Hull slap shot. The average Graves goal usually involves some pushing, some shoving, a rebound or maybe a deflection. The puck usually travels no farther than a couple of feet. He is a digger, a worker bee, hitting and jamming and constantly moving. His coach, Mike Keenan, predicted that Graves would score 50 goals this season, but nobody else thought so. Graves himself says about Keenan's prediction. "I would have called his bluff."
"I'm as surprised as anyone he's scored this much," says Smith, who signed Graves as a free agent three years ago. "But do you know why I think he's scoring? I say it's because we need goals from him. If we didn't need goals from him—if we needed some other part of the game—he'd be giving more of some other part of the game. That is the way he is. Whatever you need, that's what he tries to give you. That's his character. Do you know the story of his family? He's from a social-service type of family that tries to help any way possible where there is a need."
Off the ice the approach is no different. The lessons from the house in North York have been taken to the even meaner environment of New York. Graves is the Ranger most visible in community service. He has worked with drug rehabilitation groups, with the Ronald McDonald House, with Ice Hockey in Harlem, with another inner-city league, as well as with virtually anyone who wants him. Do you need a speaker? Need someone to present awards? The Ranger record-holding single-season goal scorer probably is available.
"He's still the same," Featherstone says. "We'll be going away for a weekend during the off-season, and he'll have some commitment to hand out awards to some youth league at a breakfast at 7:30 in the morning. He'll take his own car so he can get up at 4:30 wherever we are and drive back, by himself, to hand out the awards. The rest of us probably would just blow it off, miss it by three days or so, but not Adam. Never."
On one midseason day he is found in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, a white face in a virtually all-black environment. He is in the workrooms of a group called Family Dynamics, reading Curious George books to the younger kids, trying to organize a basketball team with older kids, not preaching any doctrine, really, just being around after school, available, talking common sense to kids who are no different from any kids—kids who want to be wanted.
"I'm very fortunate," he explains. "I had a mum and dad and a family when I was growing up. They taught me how to live. You come here, see these kids and try to teach them the same things. You know, I love hockey. I love to play the game, love everything about it, but it's not real, is it? It's not real at all. This is what's real. This is life."
A need is a need. Fifty-one goals and big money and even a Stanley Cup could not change that. The kid in the upper bunk is still a brother.