Hockey's Higher Purpose

March 24, 2014

When he was 10, Adam Graves waited two hours in a mall in Toronto to meet Maple Leafs captain Darryl Sittler. "I never forgot that moment," Graves says 35 years later. "I still remember the store: Little Lords & Ladies."

When she was nine, Taylor Ryan was enduring chemotherapy in a Long Island hospital when she heard a knock at the door. "The nurse said it was Adam Graves from the New York Rangers," says Taylor's mom, Teresa, whose daughter wasn't a hockey fan. "And Taylor went"—Teresa sighs in exasperation—"'Send him in.'"

Taylor sometimes dreads going to sleep for fear she won't wake up. Now 12, she's a frequent visitor to the Rangers' locker room. "Without this team," says her mom, "I don't know how she would have gotten through the last three years."

What is the purpose of a hockey team? "The Rangers' job is to win games," says Graves, a former NHL All-Star who scored 52 goals for the Blueshirts in 1993--94, the last season they won the Stanley Cup, "but...."

But: Liam Traynor, 12, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair when he's not playing sled hockey or doing physical therapy on his treadmill. Four years ago, when Liam was Graves's guest at the Rangers' training facility, Henrik Lundqvist signed his stick and handed it to Liam, who now sleeps under a photo of the goalie in Blauvelt, N.Y. "He smiled for a week after that," says his mother, Debbie.

"A year," says Liam, who had so loved the Rangers from an early age that when he saw a girl with cancer meeting the team on TV, he told his mom, "I know she's sick, but she's also lucky." Debbie wrote to the Rangers, and a team official replied that Madison Square Garden had a foundation (called Garden of Dreams) and a man (Graves) who could help.

Graves grew up in a Toronto duplex with his stay-at-home mother, policeman father, three siblings and, over the years, 40 foster siblings. His paper route came with a prize book. When Adam reached 50 Globe & Mail subscribers, he chose a hockey stick, a sapling that grew into a 16-year career in the NHL. "Everyone told me he was a great fighter," says Taylor, who watched Graves's entire oeuvre on YouTube. Says her mom, "All the videos are of Adam fighting and bleeding."

Three years ago Taylor (right, with Graves) was diagnosed with neurodegenerative Langerhans cell histiocytosis, a cancer-like "orphan" disease without government-funded research. But just because it's rare, says Taylor, "it doesn't mean kids like me with histio don't matter."

Graves has three kids of his own, and for the last eight years, as a Rangers special assistant, he has taken countless children who face physical or economic hardship to Rangers games. He befriends whole families, though getting Graves to acknowledge his own kindness is like pulling teeth, a ritual he knows well. "This is easy," he says dismissively. "That's not humility. It really is easy."

When he delivered a 10th birthday cake to Taylor in a suite at Madison Square Garden, she said, "Adam, I never thought I would turn 10."

"It's not just one Best Day Ever," says Liam, who has attended more games than he can count. "They keep coming."

Liam has been to the Winter Classic in Philadelphia and had his pal Michael Del Zotto (then a Rangers defenseman, now with Nashville) over to play NHL 2K. ("Smoked him 14--6," says Liam.) The Rangers' Dan Girardi gave Taylor the game-worn sweater off his back. ("It stunk," she says, displaying it in her living room in East Islip, N.Y.) "These experiences," says Liam's mom, "change a child's life."

In January, before a Rangers outdoor game at Yankee Stadium, where Liam's face would appear on the video board to a great ovation, Liam said almost inaudibly, "What else can you wish for?"

Graves will deny it, but by introducing kids to their favorite Rangers, he becomes their favorite Ranger. In one of her worst days of chemo, Taylor said, "I really hate histio. I wish I never had it." But, she added, "I wouldn't make that wish. Because if I didn't have it, I wouldn't have Adam in my life."

Adam Graves has taken countless children who face physical hardship to Rangers games, though getting him to admit his kindness is like pulling teeth.

Does your team have a hero like Adam Graves?

Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SteveRushin

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (RUSHIN)
PHOTOANGELA CRANFORD/MSG PHOTOS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)