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From young Rangers fan to ‘the next Brian Leetch,’ Adam Fox describes his NHL journey

Everything feels bigger in New York City, from the buildings to the personalities to the hype to the expectations.

Adam Fox knew this was true years before he started playing for the New York Rangers. He grew up in Jericho, on Long Island, about 30 miles east of Madison Square Garden, where Fox would cheer them on as a young fan. He understood the advantages and the adversity that come with playing in Manhattan. But he understands them both implicitly now.

As a rookie defenseman last season, Fox slowly gained attention for his all-around play before finishing fourth for the Calder Trophy, unable to match the gaudy offensive numbers of defensemen Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche and Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks. In his second NHL season, the hype has only grown for the former Harvard star: Fox is frequently mentioned as a contender for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman, and he’s earning comparisons to Rangers legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch.

We spoke with Fox recently about all of that hype; “working the system” as a college free agent, as he was drafted by Calgary in 2016, traded to Carolina in 2018, and leveraged another trade to the Rangers in 2019; his adjustments on and off the ice to the NHL; and his potential inclusion on the next U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team.

ESPN: You’ve played over a third of your career under the NHL COVID protocols. Has it made it easier that there wasn’t a “normal” established for you yet?

Fox: Last year, we were able to go out more on the road, but as a younger guy you’re not as used to that lifestyle. Not as big an adjustment, that’s for sure. But instead of going out to restaurants and stuff like that, you go from hotel room to meal room to rink. It gets a little repetitive.

ESPN: What are you binging when you’re stuck in a hotel room this year?

Fox: I’m more of a “throw on whatever is on the cable” guy. Maybe watch some hockey. But I’ve been watching a bit of “Seinfeld” now. Started that a little bit ago. Watching that one casually.

ESPN: You’re 23. When you were growing up a Rangers fan, was there a defenseman that you admired? Was it another Ranger? Was it not a Ranger?

Fox: Honestly, I didn’t get too attached to one guy. I was just a big fan of the team. My dad, he’s been a Rangers fan a lot longer than me, since he was a kid. He was a big fan of Brian Leetch and Sergei Zubov, so he always told me about those guys. But there was no one I was really too specific of being a fan of.

ESPN: Were you a Sean Avery fan?

Fox: [Laughs] Yeah, I liked him. I was young, so that stuff was funny to me. I don’t know how I’d like it as a player, in terms of playing against him and whatnot, but it was obviously entertaining being a fan.

ESPN: You said your father was a Brian Leetch fan. He must be beside himself right now, considering there have been about a dozen articles lately that are calling his son the next Brian Leetch.

Fox: We laugh about it. But we don’t bring it up too much. It’s obviously nice to be compared to someone like that. But he’s a Hall of Famer. A Norris Trophy winner. A Conn Smythe winner. I’m just trying to play my own game and people can make whatever comparisons they want.

ESPN: Are you somebody who looks at those articles and says, “let’s slow our roll on the Brian Leetch comparisons”, or someone that sees it as something to aspire to?

Fox: I guess a little bit of both. I want to play well every game. I know it sounds a little simple, but it’s how it is for my mindset. It’s an honor to hear your name in comparison to someone like that. But it could set up some big shoes to try to fill. At the same time, it’s nice have the ability to fulfill expectations like that.

ESPN: Your coach, David Quinn, said back in 2019 that you had “an NHL brain,” but wondered if you’d be quick enough to defend at an NHL level. How did you adapt so quickly to defending NHL players? Like, what are the tricks?

Fox: From junior hockey on, so basically my whole life, I was a smaller defender. People automatically assume that if you’re an offensive D-man, you can’t play defense.

ESPN: It’s Torey Krug syndrome. Undersized offensive defenseman can’t defend, according to the stereotype.

Fox: [Laughs] Exactly.

So I think the defensive side of my game is always something people looked a little more down on than I think it [deserved]. For me, it goes back to just using my brain. Even defensively, I know I’m not the biggest. I know I’m not the strongest. So I use my smarts to get positioning or use my stick to get a poke on a guy. That’s what it comes down for me to defend well.

ESPN: Other young defensemen have told me about how fast the game feels after they make the jump to the NHL. Is that how you found it?

Fox: Oh yeah, definitely. Even like in the jump from college to preseason games to the regular season, it was an adjustment, speed-wise. But the positive for me is my ability to read situations. The game has … I don’t want to say slowed down, but you adjust a little better so you can see things a little more clearly. Game 1 to now has just been that, adjusting to the speed.

Offensively, I’ve personally never been a “beat a guy 1-on-1” player in my career. I use my teammates to create space and get open. It’s funny, I had a lot of people tell me it was going to be easier for me at the NHL level because [teammates] are in the right positions and stuff. And they are in the right positions, even though I wouldn’t say it’s easier. But if you’re simple [with the puck] then it works, especially being on the ice with guys like [Artemi] Panarin and [Mika] Zibanejad. You don’t get to play with guys like that before you get to the NHL level.

ESPN: You’re getting the accolades now as a potential Norris Trophy winner, but last year the conversation was all about Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes for the Calder. As a rookie, you were sort of the hipster pick for people, and you finished fourth for the award. How were you reacting to that hype for the other young defensemen? Were you like, “hey, look at what I’m doing over here?”

Fox: No, it goes back to what we were talking about before with comparisons. I can’t control what people say. I play, and two different people watching me could see me play two different ways. I just focused on getting better each game. I wasn’t jumping into the NHL and being like “OK, let’s win the Calder.” Even being in the conversation was that was special. This year, hearing your name [for the Norris] and being in that conversation is really special.

ESPN: You had a fascinating path to the Rangers. Players rarely get a chance to work the system. Usually, the system works you guys. But Calgary drafts you, they trade you to Carolina, and you end up with the team you really wanted to play for. How on earth did you make that happen as a college free-agent type?

Fox: “Working the system” is one way to say it. I mean, I personally didn’t feel I was ready to make that jump. I know a lot of people can go to the [AHL] at a young age, but I went to Harvard for a reason. Getting far enough along for my degree was important to me. Obviously, it was a dream to play for the Rangers, but it was also an opportunity for me to go and play there and be part of a future with young guys. Being from there is the cherry on top.

ESPN: Carolina acquired you from Calgary in the Dougie Hamilton trade. At the time, GM Don Waddell said he was “99.9%” sure you’d end up with the Hurricanes. I’ve spoken to Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon a bit. He’s an excellent salesman. Was there ever a time when you were almost convinced to give the Hurricanes a chance?

Fox: I don’t know. They were good to me. I can’t help but only say positive things about Carolina. But for me … I had an opportunity to fulfill a dream that I had. You don’t get many opportunities to make a choice like that. It was my goal to do that, and had the opportunity to go with that. And it worked out.

ESPN: It has worked out, which isn’t always the case. There have been more stories about guys who got to play for their childhood favorite team where it didn’t work out well, than those where it did work out well. Like Kevin Shattenkirk going to the Rangers as a free agent, for example. Was that something in the back of your mind? Like, be careful what you wish for?

Fox: I actually didn’t even process that I was playing with my hometown team for a bit. It was more just, “OK, I want to make the NHL. I’m out of college now. This is real.” I was able to put aside the whole hometown thing. But then it hit me opening night, when they were doing the player intros. I’m playing at MSG, in front of a packed house. It’s a dream come true for me, knowing that I’m playing at MSG when I used to go watch games there as a fan.

The hometown team element is great. Just having my family at games is kind of the biggest thing I get from it. But growing up, I’ve been able to differentiate between being a Rangers fan and being a Rangers player.

ESPN: What’s been the reaction from people you grew up with in Jericho to you becoming a Ranger?

Fox: Honestly, most of my friends aren’t big hockey fans. And the ones that are, they’re Islanders fans.

ESPN: No way.

Fox: It’s definitely an interesting dynamic.

ESPN: When you were growing up, did what happened in a Rangers vs. Islanders game carry over to school the next day, with trash talking and bragging rights?

Fox: Absolutely. You’d give it to them [if the Islanders lost]. It’s funny, we were talking about the Avery stuff before, and it felt like that when you were giving it to the fans of the other team. It’s a similar situation.

ESPN: Speaking of dreams, is it hard not to think that you’re auditioning for a U.S. Olympic team spot every night? Because you’re on the radar for 2022, assuming it happens.

Fox: I don’t want to make it sound like I’m the calmest of people ever. That I only think about “in the moment” stuff. But [the Olympic selection process] is similar to world juniors. I mean, the Olympics are obviously much bigger, but say you’re in college, you’re playing for your college team, and you know the world juniors selection process is going on. It’s the same thing here. We’re deep into the season. I’m not really thinking “if I play well, I have a shot at [the Olympics].” I’m playing well to help the Rangers win. If things work out, that’s great. But it’s not an audition for anything else.

ESPN: So you’re not texting [Team USA GM] Stan Bowman American flag emojis after games or anything like that?

Fox: [Laughs] Yeah, no, I’m not texting him that stuff or telling him “Watch me! Watch me!”

ESPN: Finally, what has surprised you the most about NHL life in the last two seasons?

Fox: I think coming from college, I didn’t really play all that many games. Maybe 30 in a season. So the recovery aspect has been an adjustment. I never napped in college, for example. Now I’m napping pretty much before every game, just trying to get as much extra sleep as possible.

ESPN: Are you a good napper?

Fox: No, I’m actually not the greatest sleeper. I rely on a little melatonin to help me go to sleep. But you have to get a more sleep [in the NHL]. And I was a night owl at college.

ESPN: Well, it’s not like you’re living in New York City where things are happening at all hours of the night, right?

Fox: [Laughs] It was an adjustment.

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