SCHENECTADY — You’re 6-foot-5, with a nose for the net and good hockey sense.
You’ve been drafted by the Detroit Red Wings, and while your freshman year at Union College was disappointing, you addressed some key areas — such as footwork and backchecking — in the offseason. A few healthy scratches from the lineup last season still gnaw at you, but in a good way. You were named conference All-Academic.
So you’re looking at Union College’s 2018-19 season opener at Messa Rink against Army on Saturday with the optimism and the self-assuredness of a 21-year-old pro hockey prospect prepared to show what all the behind-the-scenes offseason grind has produced.
Then your coach shows up at Fox Hall one morning, less than three weeks before the highly anticipated season opener, and says he has to drive you home to Boxford, Mass.
And Jack Adams doesn’t remember much of anything from that car ride, because his older brother, Mark “Roo” Adams Jr., the leading light of Jack’s life, is dead.
A week goes by before Jack picks up a stick or puts on a pair of skates again.
He loses 15 pounds.
But Jack Adams will be in his Union Dutchmen uniform Saturday. While the aftermath of his brother’s death lingers, so does the afterglow of his life. It’s a measure of Roo’s enduring impact on his younger brother that Jack Adams is back on campus and raring to go for the Army game, even if he remains befuddled by life and in a deep state of grief.
“I don’t know, just being alone in my house was making me more upset, and I just knew that if I wanted to get ready for Army, then I needed to start skating again, because I was kind of out of shape,” Adams said before practice on Thursday afternoon, sitting on a bench in the Messa Rink lobby in front of a glittering trophy case.
“It was terrible, man. But there was never a thought in my mind that he wouldn’t want me to play. He was my biggest fan.”
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Mark Adams, son of Mark Sr. and Heather, died at the age of 27 on Sept. 18 of what his obituary describes as “a medical incident.” A defenseman drafted by the Buffalo Sabres, he played at Providence College, including 32 games as a senior when the Friars won a national championship under former Union head coach Nate Leaman in 2015, a year after Union won the national title in Rick Bennett’s third season as head coach.
His college career was plagued by injuries, especially to his knees, that waylaid his opportunity to play pro hockey.
Because Mark was the first of the Adams’ four kids, mom was Kanga and he was Roo, and although a goofy nickname like that may have been shed by most boys — especially one aspiring to be a big-time hockey player — it’s an indication of Mark’s personality, Jack said, that he instead embraced it, instead.
“Very complicated,” Jack said, to describe his brother. “He was one of the most unique individuals I ever met in my entire life. He’s naturally brilliant. Like, he got a perfect score on the SAT, but you wouldn’t think that from the way he acts. He was borderline hilarious with the jokes he’d make. It’s hard to describe, because they’re so out of the blue.
“And as an athlete, he was the hardest-working athlete I literally have ever seen. And that’s why it’s so sad, because you see someone who treats their body so perfect, and just to have their body fail them, that makes you question everything. Like, how do you work so hard, eat everything the right way, you don’t drink alcohol, you go to bed at the right time and have the same girlfriend for 10 years.
“You do all the right things, and then” — Jack snaps his fingers — “one day, you’re gone.”
Even though Roo never got to realize the pro hockey career he so passionately wanted and diligently strove for, he took it upon himself to keep close tabs on his brother’s progress.
As a freshman, Jack Adams appeared in 28 of 38 games, scoring four goals, and the Dutchmen were 4-0-0 in those games. But he also spent some nights in a suit and tie in what Bennett calls “Section P, for Parents,” instead of on the bench in uniform. As it is for many freshmen forwards in Bennett’s system, there’s an adjustment period learning to play the full 200 feet of ice, and not just the offensive zone.
“Yeah, I wasn’t happy with my season at all, to be honest. I set pretty high expectations for myself,” Adams said.
“We [he and Roo] talked and texted every day about practice … ‘What line are you on, how did you do today, power play?’ … he watched all my games. That’s the worst part about it, not having those conversations anymore. But I know the last thing he’d want is not having me play.”
Even without Roo, Adams has all the support he could ask for from his Union teammates, especially roommate and classmate Sean Harrison, who is from Anchorage, Alaska and spent a few days with Adams at his home after the news of Roo’s death. Before a workout at the Schenectady County Recreational Facility on Sept. 26, which marked Adams’ return to practice, Bennett said there is no playbook for dealing with this type of situation, but the Dutchmen seem to have figured it out pretty well.
Adams is grateful to Leaman and the Providence hockey community for lending comfort to his family. The Friars will host “Roo Adams Night” for their home game against New Hampshire on Nov. 30, Jack said.
“My parents are taking it really hard, obviously,” Jack Adams said. “You can’t imagine losing a child, obviously, but … there’s no words, really. It’s a lot of denial, I think, still. It just doesn’t make any sense to any of us, that someone so young could be taken from us.
“But we’re moving houses in the next few weeks. We’re looking forward to that, and we’re trying to go through the old stuff and remember the old times we had together as a family and think of the positive experiences we had. But, I mean, it’s still so hard for us. It hasn’t gotten any easier, I can’t sugarcoat it.
“But I’m just trying to keep my life somewhat in order — not ‘get on with my life’ — but to just try to live the best I can right now, I guess. It’s hard. I kind of cut off a lot of people, because it’s not really easy to talk to a lot of people right now. It just sucks because you always hear about, like, God having a plan and all that. And you can question why? It’s the craziest you could ever imagine.”
Hockey will be therapeutic, he said, even moreso now that season is upon him and the Dutchmen.
They should be really good this season, too, and a new state-of-the-art videoboard replacing the old center-ice scoreboard will rock Messa.
Naturally, Jack is dedicating this season to Roo. He doesn’t get texts from his brother anymore. But he has gotten the message.
“Personally, I feel ready to go. As a team, I think we’re going to be really fun to watch with all the work we’ve put in and all the returners we have,” Jack Adams said. “I think I always have dedicated it to my family. Our family is so close. You realize family is the most important thing in life, and hockey second, but this will really improve my drive and work ethic to honor his legacy, because I don’t want his legacy to go away.
“I want people to remember the impact he had on me and everyone else around him.”