September 21, 2005
There were many things lost thanks to the inability of the NHL and it's Players Association to save the 2004/05 season, not the least of which were the jobs and livelihoods of numerous people working in and around this great game.
But, we also lost a season of Saturday nights gathered around the television for Bob Cole's play-by-play and Harry Neale's quick wit. We missed a year of Don Cherry's rock 'em sock 'em rants as he traded barbs with Ron McLean. How about no office pool, no playoff races, no one-timers or jaw-dropping saves on the morning highlights. Furthermore, what about trips to the pub for a mid-week telecast of the Leafs and Wings from Motown, or the most beautiful trophy in all of sports hoisted high over an exhausted captain who just two days earlier couldn't tie his skates thanks to the pains of playoff hockey. Yeah, we missed that too.
But what we may have missed the most, is something that we didn't really know was happening. It was a chance to say thank you and goodbye to four of the best players to EVER play this game. There will be no farewell tour. No last hurrah. No final season. Their final season has already come and passed, and quite honestly that part of it is probably only fitting. These four guys were team-first pros who would have felt bad if the fanfare of their final season affected their team's ability to do what they all did so well, for so long. Win.
They're four good Canadian boys who lived the dream. Between them, they hit the ice in 6,538 regular season games over a combined 93 seasons. They also played in 817 playoff games and hoisted the Stanley Cup 12 times. At the end of the last NHL season they held the #1, #2, #3 and #6 spots in games played among active players.
They were captains and leaders. They were scorers and playmakers. They were consummate pros. They were a fantastic four. The Leader, The Bruiser, The Shooter and The Professor.
THE LEADER: # 11 - Mark Messier
6 Stanley Cup rings, 2 Hart Trophies, and a clutch performance for the ages thanks to his 1994 guarantee that ""We Will Win""
Mark Messier is a leader. Not because he won six Stanley Cups and not because of ""guaranteed win night"" in the '94 playoffs. His reputation doesn't come from writers or broadcasters who have a tendency to give players a convenient label for the purpose of selling papers or ad space.
The reputation that Messier gained as one of, if not, the best leaders in hockey history comes from the ONLY source necessary - his peers. Messier hangs 'em up as the second most prolific scorer in hockey history - behind his former teammate and friend, Wayne Gretzky. But, like the Great One, Messier's star shone brightest when it counted the most - in the playoffs. His 236 career playoff games is the second highest total in league history, and during that time he scored 109 goals and added 186 assists for 295 points - all three totals put him, again second bestin NHL history behind Gretzky.
But Messier takes a backseat to no one when it comes to one all-time category. Being shorthanded in the postseason can be a momentum killer and bad penalties have cost a lot of great teams a lot of big games. When his teammates were down and needed him most, Messier scored an NHL record 14 shorthanded goals - three more than Wayne.
THE BRUISER: # 4 - Scott Stevens
2,785 career Penalty Minutes, 3 Stanley Cups, 1 Conn Smythe Trophy and more #1 hits than The Beatles and the Stones combined
Scott Stevens played the game the way it's meant to be played. Hard, fast, and clean. No one in the last 20 years has had a more intimidating on-ice presence than Stevens. His punishing open ice collisions with forwards cruising into the zone with their heads down is the stuff of legends. Just ask fellow retiree Ron Francis or current Maple Leaf Eric Lindros. You could also call Paul Kariya or Shane Willis or countless others too numerous to mention.
It didn't matter who you were or how nice a guy you were, if your jersey was a different colour - you were a target. Ask Martin Brodeur why he and the Devils have been so good for so long and a big part of his answer is Scott Stevens. He was a rock on the point for all three of the Devils' Stanley Cup runs, but perhaps the most astounding aspect of his 22 seasons is the fact that considering the way he played the game - he finishes his career having played 1,635 games - fourth highest in NHL history. Make no mistake about it, if you ask any player from the last two decades about Scott Stevens they will tell you one of two things. Either they always knew exactly where he was on the ice, or they didn't - and paid for it.
THE SHOOTER: # 2 - Al MacInnis
166 career powerplay goals from the point, a Stanley Cup, a Norris Trophy, and the uncanny ability to strike fear into every goalie he ever faced
Al MacInnis may be a defenceman, but he has more career goals than plenty of very talented forwards. With 340 goals, 934 assists and 1,274 points, MacInnis is 3rd all-time among defencemen in each category behind only Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey. His shot however, will be his legacy. Not only was it regularly clocked at over 100 m.p.h. - but it was deadly accurate, and that's a good thing - especially for his teammates. When asked why they didn't seem to fear standing in front of the net when he wound up for one of his 5,157 career shots - teammates have said they weren't worried because he rarely missed. A fact that is reflected in his 19 seasons of 10 or more goals, and 7 seasons of 20 or more, including a career high of 28, which he did three times. Despite only winning 1 Stanley Cup, MacInnis also served his national team well including winning gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
THE PROFESSOR: # 10 - Ron Francis
2 Stanley Cups, 3 Lady Byng Trophies and the quietest player to amass 1,700 points in the history of the NHL
Ron Francis began his career as a student of the game, and ended it with a reputation as one of the most intelligent to ever play. Francis very quietly put up some eye-popping numbers in his 23 years of study - quiet only because of where he played. If he had spent his years in Detroit or New York, Francis would have been on the tip of everyone's tongue as not only a first ballot hall of famer, but as one of the best to ever play. Instead, he spent his playing days in Hartford, Pittsburgh and Carolina - the NHL equivalent of Siberia, the South Pole, and Cameron Diaz's backyard. He did close it out in Toronto, but only played 12 regular season games and 12 more in the playoffs. The numbers he compiled along the way though; are staggering. Only Gordie Howe and Mark Messier have played more NHL games. Only Messier, Howe and some guy named Wayne have amassed more points, and one that you may not be aware of, only the Great One himself collected more career assists than ""Ronnie Franchise"". With 1,249 of them under his belt, the next closest active player is Steve Yzerman. He sits at 1,043a full 206 helpers behind Francis' total.
THIS Fantastic Four is A LOT better than the movie you're embarrassed to admit you saw this past summer. The year these four guys become eligible for the Hockey Hall Of Fame is set from a player perspective. There is NO debate. I repeat NO debate. All four of these guys are no-doubt, slam-dunk, Hall of Famers kind of like how Mario Lemieux never misses on a breakaway or how you know Ben Affleck will always be a bad actor. It's a guarantee - period, and that's the good news.
The bad news is; Ben Affleck will continue to make movies, but more importantly...
We didn't get a chance to say good-bye to this Fantastic Four.