18 years (so far). Hundreds of former teammates. All different personalities. Some are funny, some are serious. Some are quirky, others are as straight as an arrow. Some have left a permanent impression on me. I will feature a few ex-teammates in a short package of stories of past experiences that I hope will help others to see the different personalities and characters that I, and most certainly others, have come across through the game of hockey. Throughout the game of hockey, there are some people that once having met them, you will not forget them. There will be a few from North America and a few from playing overseas. This is the first instalment. Enjoy. 

Adam Graves

I met Adam Graves as a baby-faced rookie coming to Training Camp with the New York Rangers in the fall of 2001. I had finished my season with the Canadian National Team (in the final season that there was an actual team) and joined the Houston Aeros in the last year of the IHL for the stretch drive and playoffs the year before. I played well enough throughout my time there that Ron Low (Houston’s coach) decided that when he was named the head coach of the New York Rangers the next season, they should take a chance on me. I signed a two-year contract as a free agent and I showed up to training camp in Vermont the following season.

I had a great training camp. I came to camp in shape, aced my bike and fitness tests and even scored twice in the final “blue and white” scrimmage on the last day. I played in 7 of the 9 exhibition games (I had to miss one with a deep cut on my hand as I lost a glove and Mike York’s skate nearly cut the tendon in the back of my outer right hand) but was sent down on the last day as a last cut. The coaches were impressed and I left disheartened but knew that I had given it my best and if I did well in Hartford of the AHL I would be back. A few of the veterans gave me some congratulations on a good camp and wished me well, one of whom was Adam Graves.

3 plus months of the season have gone by in Hartford. I have played fairly well, and the first 40 games have gone quickly. I pay attention to the Rangers and watch the games when I can, knowing that an injury or coach’s decision could mean I get a phone call. The team Super Bowl party goes as planned…lots of snacks, even more beer, and even some wrestling matches. I decide it’s a good idea to try to wrestle Chris “Animal” Kenady. Nursing a hangover and a stiff neck made the Monday road trip after practice all the way to Norfolk, Virginia the next day feel even longer. About halfway through the trip I got a tap on the shoulder saying “Paddock wants to talk to you at the front of the bus.” I make my way up to the front of the bus and our head coach John Paddock says “You got called up. You will play against the Canadiens tomorrow night in New York.

Nervous. Scared. Intimidated. Neck feeling better (thankfully). I enter Madison Square Garden like any 23 year old from Saskatchewan would, through the wrong door. Luckily one of the Rangers sees me and to my surprise, recognizes me. “Hey Jeff, congratulations on getting the call-up.” All I can think is, “Adam Graves remembers my name??” I walk into the elevator for the 5-floor ride to ice level with Adam and he says “give me your hockey bag, I’ll help you.” I had a small personal bag and my sticks so he figured he would take the heaviest bag for the rookie. I’m not sure if it was his 15th year in the NHL, or thereabouts, but my first morning of being an NHLer started that way. Little did I know I would start the game on the right wing with Adam Graves and Mark Messier that night. Standing on the blue line during the singing of the anthems, staring at the Montreal Canadiens on the opposite blue line, next to those two in Madison Square Garden is a moment I won’t forget.

Playing in New York means dealing with New York traffic. The players that lived outside of Midtown Manhattan would bring a personal bag in the morning of the home games and then check into the hotel across the street from MSG, where they would have lunch after pre-game skate and then catch a few hours of sleep before donning a suit to walk across the street to the game. My roommate for most of the home games in which I spent with the Rangers (likely only 12 of the 21 that I played in) was Adam Graves.

Each and every hockey player has different routines on a game day. Whether it’s watch a few hours of TV and sleep for 30 minutes or read for 30 minutes and sleep for 2-3 hours, we are all unique. I would have been 100% content doing whatever it was that didn’t disturb my veteran roommate. Instead, Adam would hand me the remote and say “go ahead and watch TV or do whatever you would normally do, I’ll just watch what you decide to watch and then doze off.” Of course as soon as I sensed he would be ready to fall asleep I would switch off the TV…but not the typical veteran telling the rookie what schedule the room would be on.

The walk to the dressing room through Madison Square Garden is a unique one. The size of the arena and the large hallways, bright lights and people spilling out onto the street from Penn Station all add to the atmosphere and grandeur surrounding MSG. Adam had a familiar route, and a few times I would tag along and walk with him. To my surprise (not now, but at the time) he would say hello and smile to each of the working staff that he saw at the arena that day. A few fans that knew his route would catch up to him to wish him luck and say hi. Some he would greet them by name and ask how their day was going. He didn’t have large headphones on while walking past them as a 50-goal NHL star in his own World, so focused on his upcoming game. For some, that is acceptable and their prerogative. Rather, he took the time to make eye contact and give a genuine greeting to those he passed, whether it be a ticket taker, a super-fan or a hallway sweeper. Did he have to? No. Did he do it because he knew that someone would see him and write about it? Definitely not.

Later in the season my parents flew into New York to see us play a few home games. During their weekend in New York, the team had an event that they were lucky enough to attend. They were able to meet the other players on the Rangers and also interact with some of the Ranger greats from the earlier eras, something that my Dad really enjoyed. As we were leaving the event, my parents said that they met a lot of great guys. One thing I remember them saying was that they had a chance to speak with Adam Graves. He wasn’t in a rush and had, in fact, come up to them to introduce himself. He made sure to tell them how proud they should be of their son and to welcome them to New York. All of this for a rookie who, if a few breaks hadn’t gone my way, likely would have never set foot in MSG.

Adam may or may not remember playing a few games with me, as his career was a great one filled with top achievements. I know that his #9 hangs in the rafters of Madison Square Garden, as well it should. I also know that although he was an excellent hockey player, tough and skilled, he is a better person. He routinely played the game “the right way”, but I couldn’t say that I distinctly remember him for his on-ice heroics. But these few short stories that I have shared as examples of his character have stayed in the back of my mind since that first morning of being an NHLer in January of 2001 and I have tried to emulate those things, still now, in my 18th season of professional hockey in 2017.

I’d like to someday thank Adam in person, but I know he would rather I leave a mark on other young players over my career. I hope that I have, if even in a small way, and will continue to try to do so. We can be hockey players as long as our bodies allow us to do so, but we are people our whole lives.

~Thanks for reading. I will post another article on an ex-teammate in the near future. All the best in and outside of hockey.

Jeff Ulmer

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