The first thing you notice about Adam Graves is his chin.
Wide at the sides, it then cuts sharply in the middle. But when you tilt your head a little higher, you then notice another distinguishing feature—his nose.
Bent and crooked in more ways than a child-made paper airplane, the former NHL star used his unique facial traits as a way to break the ice at the OFSAA banquet last Wednesday night in Windsor.
“As you can tell by my nose and the other side of my face, I took some beatings over the years,” Graves said while laughter echoed through the 1,000 person-filled Giovanni Caboto Club.
Wearing a black suit and a black inside dress shirt with no tie (hockey players don’t like wearing ties), Graves enthralled, engrossed, and engaged the mixture of high school players, coaches, and members of OFSAA with a 25-minute speech where he reminisced about his 16 NHL seasons, including Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers (’90) and the N.Y. Rangers (’94) and happenings from his 37-year-old life in a humorous and impressionable manner.
“I retired a couple of years ago, but I probably retired four years ago, but I fooled them for a couple of extra years,” said Graves, who racked up 329 NHL goals and 616 total points, and who is recognized as the first ex-Edmonton Oiler to record a 50-goal season.
“And it was probably best I retired because seeing these guys with their Mohawks, there’s no way, with the monkey’s butt in the back of my head, that I could pull one of those hairdos off.”
Ten minutes into his non-scripted speech, Graves, whose nickname is “Gravey,” recalled a life-defining moment when he was just a wee lad back in Toronto, which is where he was raised (he was born in Tecumseh, just outside of Windsor).
Coming back from school one day, he noticed his older sister crying after getting off the school bus.
“I didn’t think anything of it, and we get into the house and my dad asks her what’s wrong and then all of a sudden he calls me over and I knew by the tone in his voice he wasn’t happy,” Graves recalled.
Graves’ dad was a police officer for 30 years and a follower of the “old school.” Explaining that a boy at their school had beaten up his sister, his dad gave him an ultimatum—“Son, you have a choice. You can take care of that kid or you can come home and fight me.
“So the next day, I get off that bus and my sister is three years older than I was so, of course, this kid is a lot bigger than me, but I knew my choices were rather slim.”
Graves didn’t disclose if he won or lost the fight, but that wasn’t the point.
The point he was trying to relay to the hall filled with high-school testosterone was “fighting doesn’t solve anything, but when you have family and friends, you have to look out for them and you have to take care of them.”
“That’s kind of an odd way to explain it, but it always stuck in my mind.”
Something else that stuck in Graves’ mind was back in ’89 and his third season with the Detroit Red Wings. Rumours had been swirling in Hockeytown about his possible trade and “it was really, really bothering me because I loved Detroit.”
Jacques Demers was the coach at the time for the Red Wings and sensing his young players’ discomfort, “put his arm around me and said, ‘Son, don’t worry. You’re fine. You’re going to be here for the next 10 years,’ and I thought that was great.”
Graves would pick up his cousin later in the day at the Windsor train station and his cousin disclosed he had seen Jimmy Carson, who was part of the trade for Wayne Gretzky and originally from the Detroit area, in one of the train’s offices “putting on a Red Wings jersey.”
So he and his cousin wanted to see who the Red Wings had given up to get Carson, who was coming off a 100-point year with Edmonton, and went to his old billet’s residence in Windsor (Graves had played with the OHL Windsor Spitfires before joining the Red Wings).
“So we go over there and as soon as I walk into the door, the lady I stayed with handed me a piece of paper and said I had to phone Glen Sather [Edmonton’s general manager].
“Within 45 minutes, I was on a flight from the Windsor airport to Toronto and then onto Edmonton.
“I didn’t have one stitch of clothing with me [his apartment was in Detroit] and I didn’t get my clothes for another five weeks when we first came back to play Detroit,” Graves added.
“There are going to be times when there’s change and you have to be open to that change,” said Graves. “And as a young guy sitting on that flight, I was overwhelmed and [my] eyes welled up a little bit because I couldn’t believe how quickly things had happened.
“But as sad as that day was, it allowed me the opportunity to play in Edmonton.”
Being placed on a line with Joe Murphy and Martin Gelinas, which was infamously dubbed the “Kid Line,” the inexperienced trio excelled in the playoffs and helped Edmonton win its fifth Stanley Cup in seven seasons.
“When you look back on things, you have to be thankful for the opportunities you were given and the people you were surrounded by,” Graves stressed.
“Looking back—sitting on that plane with no baggage and no clothes and thinking I was going to be a Red Wing for 10 years, [then] fast forward nine months and to be a part of what I still consider to be my greatest memory in winning the Stanley Cup, and remember having my mom and dad come down after driving 13 hours and drink out of the Stanley Cup.”
The Gravey train would (unfortunately for Edmonton) depart the following season for New York and the Rangers, where he was a major factor (10 playoff goals) in their Stanley Cup win in ’94.
Graves, who would represent Canada four times (once as a junior), finished off his impressive NHL career with the San Jose Sharks only two years ago. And after his speech, which received a standing ovation, he was greeted by a lineup of close to 50 people wanting autographs and pictures.
“What lasting impression do you hope the players took away from your speech?” I asked Graves when he was free.
“Everyone looks at the game of hockey, and looks at goals and assists and wins and losses, and I think what is taken for granted is the lessons the sport can teach you and not just hockey, but sport in general, and the way you can apply those to school and making the right choices in life.”
He’ll be the first to admit he isn’t “perfect by any means” and makes “mistakes every day of my life,” and his sincerity is a trait that draws people to him.
In other words—he’s a breath of fresh air.
One of the most telling moments of his character came when he took a seat after being given a standing ovation. Then while OFSAA organizer John Laporte gave his thanks to Graves for coming in, that’s when you would have seen him take a white-cloth napkin and dab his welled eyes.
“It was emotional to be part of this,” said Graves. “You try to do the best job you can, and you can’t take yourself too seriously because everyone has imperfections, but you always have to put your best foot forward.”
“Thank you for your time, Mr. Graves,” I said, shaking his hand.
Of course it is, I thought.
The first thing you notice about Adam Graves is his chin.