Adam Fox, on the edge of stardom

Can the Rangers’ young defenseman go from Jericho to hockey’s Promised Land?

In a city whose seemingly never-ending sports devotion defies the unfulfilled dreams and spells of mediocrity that have come to characterize the last two decades, New York City fans nevertheless possess the stamina and market-share ability to turn any star player of talent into a national sports celebrity in a way no other fan base can.

By this criteria, Adam Fox should soon become a household name. The 23-year-old New York Rangers defenseman starts the halfway point of his third season as a star on the rise. After a promising rookie campaign, Fox surprised the hockey world by winning the Norris Trophy in his sophomore season as the league’s top defenseman — a feat previously only accomplished by Boston Bruins great Bobby Orr. The win also made Fox the first Jewish player in NHL history to receive a major individual award. Now in his third season, the Long Island native’s continued improvement has played a significant role in the Rangers’ surprise success this season.

Growing up in Jericho, a town on Nassau County’s North Shore, Fox took to hockey early, first learning to play as a 4-year-old. For many years, despite living deep in New York Islander’s territory, his father, Bruce, owned Rangers season tickets, affording Adam and his brother the frequent opportunity to attend games. The exposure also turned the brothers into committed Rangers fans.

Like much of the surrounding Nassau County, Jericho includes a sizable population of Jewish residents. 

“I grew up in a pretty good Jewish community. I didn’t feel like an outsider at all for being Jewish,” Fox recalled in an interview with Jewish Insider.

For his bar mitzvah, Fox chose, perhaps not surprisingly, a hockey-themed party. “I had these T-shirts with [hockey] sticks on them and everything.” Fox described. “I didn’t want to have any adults there. I know people like to do that.”

Off the ice, Fox sounds exactly like the nice Jewish boy his background suggests. He speaks in a thoughtful, calm and thoroughly polite manner. He describes a Jewish upbringing that included attending services and gathering for holiday meals.

“The Jewish holidays are especially big on just bringing family together and spending time,” Fox remarked. “When it comes to food, I know my family loves some brisket and some latkes. So I think those are a staple in my house.”

After graduating high school in 2016, Fox committed to attend and play hockey at Harvard University.

College attendance remains rare for NHL players, with only one-third choosing to postpone their professional ambitions for the campus green. Despite being drafted by the Calgary Flames in 2016, Fox’s decision to commit to Harvard was based on his own expectation that he would not continue to play hockey professionally. “I wasn’t really looking for a future in hockey,” he explained. “I think, first and foremost, the education was the number one reason for wanting to go there.”

At Harvard, Fox majored in psychology and was selected as a First Team All-American. With Fox as the leading scorer, the hockey team reached the semifinals of the NCAA Division I national championship in 2017. 

“​​It was great. I loved it,” Fox enthused of his time as an undergraduate, crediting the education with instilling a maturity he now finds important to his game.

After his junior year at Harvard, Fox found his signing rights traded from Calgary to the Carolina Hurricanes and, eventually, to the Rangers. In 2019, with a year remaining at Harvard, Fox left Cambridge for New York, securing a roster spot during preseason training.

Adam Fox as member of the Harvard Crimson skates against the Boston University Terriers during NCAA hockey at The Bright-Landry Hockey Center on January 8, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts

“It’s been surreal,” Fox said of playing for his childhood team. “There could also be a little more added pressure being that you’re close to home and [in] a major market like New York. But at the same time, [I’m] able to fulfill a dream that [I’ve] had since I was a little kid and play for the Rangers every day. It’s definitely a blessing.”

The continued proximity to Long Island and the community in Jericho makes it all the more special. 

Even when he is unable to find the time to drive the 30 miles from Madison Square Garden, Fox says he frequently receives and appreciates messages of support from his friends back home.

“That area, all of Long Island, obviously holds a close place to my heart. I’m a part of that community, and it’s obviously good for me to be in this position. It’s nice to have people who look up to you and see that ‘Jewish athlete from Long Island.’”

While Fox admits does not think about it every day, he considers Judaism “a part of my identity,” explaining, “It’s who I am.”

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Fox has drawn rave reviews for his hockey intelligence and vision on the ice. He plays with a quickness and ease that makes the absolute most of his 5-foot-11 frame. Watching him play, he seems to possess a sixth sense for the puck, pivoting to throw his stick out at just the right moment to block a shot or tip a pass, exhibiting the finesse an undersized defenseman needs in the rugged NHL.

“Ever since I was younger, I was never the biggest, strongest or fastest, so you kind of have to find different ways to be effective,” Fox told JI. “For me, it was never about being overly physical, it was just making the right play.”

Last season, Fox was promoted to the first power-play unit. Skeptics questioned whether the young player, only in his second year, could handle such a key assignment, but Fox has thrived in the role. His passing, always a highlight of his game, was put to immediate good use, with Fox serving as the central point of attack.

Since then, the Rangers have excelled at the power-play, currently ranking seventh in power-play goals this season. Fox and fellow first-unit standouts Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad individually rank in the league’s top 10 in total points (a combination of goals and assists).

Observers compare Fox’s talents to those of Hall of Famer Brian Leetch, one of the greatest defensemen in hockey history, who led the Rangers to win the 1994 Stanley Cup — the franchise’s sole championship since 1940.

The comparison was made by the iconic Rangers play-by-play announcer Sam Rosen, who declared Fox “Brian Leetch-like” at the end of last season.

“The thing that always stood out to me about Brian is the great vision he had of the ice, whether it was to make a pass to the center or make a pass to the winger breaking the wall and just lead a play into the offensive zone. The rushes from end to end. He was so special. And we’re seeing this on a nightly basis from [Fox],” Rosen, who has called Rangers games since 1984, told the New York Post’s Rangers podcast.

After last season, the entire hockey world has taken notice. Fox was selected to his first All-Star Game, which was held last weekend (although he sat out due to an upper-body injury), and he is on the shortlist for a possible Norris Trophy repeat (a feat not done since 2008).

Increasingly, opposing teams are strategizing around the reigning Norris Trophy winner, yet Fox continues to thrive under pressure. According to data compiled by The Athletic, Fox connects on 92 percent of his passes in the offensive zone. Despite missing two weeks, Fox is tied for first in points among all defensemen.

Now just past the halfway point of the season, the Rangers lead the Metropolitan Division and are among the favorites to make the postseason for the first time since 2017. In an especially success-hungry city, the pressure to turn an excellent regular season into a triumphant playoff run is high.

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When he’s not playing in front of packed crowds at Madison Square Garden, Fox keeps to many of the routines of a 20-something living in New York City.

In his Upper West Side apartment, he and roommate Ryan Lindgren (a Rangers teammate and fellow defenseman) compete using a portable indoor putting green to decide which of them picks up their delivery food dinners from the lobby of their building. The two also trade TV show suggestions, for when their schedules permit. At Lindgren’s suggestion, Fox recently started watching “Seinfeld.”

The 23-year-old pled his youth when asked why he had waited to start the 1990s comedy series (let alone that it took the prompting of a Minneapolis gentile). “I finally was like, let me watch it and, you know, [it’s] pretty funny,” Fox remarked, adding that he hoped to start Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” next.

Despite these cultural touchstones, Fox is no ordinary young  New Yorker early in his career. In November, the Rangers rewarded him with a seven-year contract extension reportedly worth $66.5 million. At $9.5 million per year, the new deal is the largest ever for a defenseman leaving his entry-level contract.

Fox has leveraged his growing talent and fame to advocate for causes he’s long supported. His girlfriend’s father, former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Tim Green, founded Tackle ALS after his diagnosis several years ago. Since then, the organization has raised over $5.5 million for ALS research at the Healey Center for ALS at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“I know that the ‘ice bucket challenge’ was something that went around when I was younger, but to be around firsthand and see the impact [ALS] has, it’s changed my outlook and made me want to help out and do something to help out with that cause.”

While the pandemic has limited public community events, Fox and the Rangers have helped raise money for ALS research through raffles of game tickets and hockey sticks signed by the defenseman.

While he may not seek the exposure, Fox understands that his position casts him as a role model — especially to young Jewish hockey fans. “Understanding what it means for some Jewish kids to see me out there representing [them],” Fox said, pausing slightly. “Things like that are just stuff you learn along the way and understand that you are in a position to influence and maybe inspire people.”

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During a recent January game at Madison Square Garden against the Los Angeles Kings, Fox played the late-game hero, scoring the winning goal in a shootout. This was a rare spot for Fox, or any defenseman, who is usually not called on for these one-on-one scoring opportunities. Coming in as the 12th shooter of the sudden-death period, Fox faked a forehand shot that caused Kings goalie Jonathan Quick — who had already made several impressive saves  —  to move off-balance to his left, before Fox delivered a backhand flick on the goalie’s right.

The entire sequence looked polished, perfectly executed and extremely confident.

Adam Fox scores the game winning goal against Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings in a shootout at Madison Square Garden on January 24, 2022 in New York City.

After the game, Fox admitted he never practiced the move. “I don’t expect to go too often, so I work on other things,” he said laughing. “I haven’t been in a shootout since maybe my junior days.”

Nevertheless, his play impressed Rangers Head Coach Gerard Gallant.

“I think he should be one of our top shooters. He doesn’t love to do it a lot, but I think after tonight’s goal he’s going to get a lot of confidence doing it,” Gallant predicted after the Kings game. “I talked to him earlier in the year about going, he said ‘No, I don’t feel comfortable going.’ But I think that’s going to change now.”

The next day, Fox still sounded less certain than his coach.

“If it had to come down to me to do, I was happy to be able to come through,” he told JI. “Hockey is the ultimate team sport in that sense. I think it’s not always just one person getting all the glory, and I think that’s the great part about it.”

“I think obviously you have the dreams of scoring the Game Seven overtime winner to win the Stanley Cup… I definitely have those dreams.” Fox continued. “You know, a shootout winner at MSG is up there, but I definitely have bigger goals that I want to accomplish with the Rangers.”

Those “bigger goals” need no additional explanation. With the young star only in his third season, the New York hockey fandom is abuzz with what Fox could mean to the franchise.

And for Fox, who also grew up rooting for the Jets and Mets, he could bring championship glory to one of his childhood teams for the first time in his life.

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