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Hall induction latest affirmation of Messier's greatness

by Adam Kimelman

Mark Messier captained the 1989-90 Oilers to their fifth Cup in seven seasons, and in 1994, captaining the New York Rangers to their historic, 54-year-jinx-ending championship.
Mark Messier’s career didn’t begin when Wayne Gretzky was traded. But it took the greatest player in the game’s history to move 1,700 miles south for people to see what kind of player and leader Messier truly was.

VIDEO: Messier sits down with | Messier highlights

Messier is being recognized as an all-time great with his enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining fellow inductees Scott Stevens, Ron Francis, Al MacInnis and Jim Gregory in the star-studded Class of 2007.

Messier played second fiddle to Gretzky in nine seasons together in Edmonton, scoring 302 goals and 747 points, and winning four Stanley Cups. But after the monumental 1988 trade that sent “The Great One” to Los Angeles, Messier took over the first chair, and the orchestra didn’t miss a beat.

“When I look back at those years, I have to thank Wayne for really helping me not only develop as a player, but also develop my mental side of the game and my preparation,” Messier said.

He captained the 1989-90 Oilers to their fifth Cup in seven seasons, and then cemented his legacy in 1994, captaining the New York Rangers to their historic, 54-year-jinx-ending championship. His joyous, Grand Canyon-wide smile holding hockey’s holy grail is one that will live on in perpetuity.

He ended his remarkable 25-year career second only to Gretzky in scoring with 1,887 regular-season points and 295 postseason points.

Mark Messier was born Jan. 18, 1961, in Edmonton, Alberta. The youngster grew real big and real strong real fast. By age 16, he was 200 pounds and ready to play with men.

He skipped major junior hockey, and at age 17, earned a five-game tryout with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association. When the Racers folded after that 1978-79 season, he celebrated his 18th birthday by signing with the WHA’s Cincinnati Stingers. In 47 games, he scored just 11 points. It wasn’t his scoring, though, that impressed Edmonton Oilers boss Glen Sather, who selected Messier with the 48th overall pick in the 1979 draft.

“I had seen him play against us in Edmonton,” Sather said. “We had a player named Dennis Sobchuk, who was a big, tall, star player out of junior hockey, and he did something to Mark and Mark beat the crap out of him. Mark wasn’t a goal scorer the one year he played, but he had the fire in his eyes to play.”

Messier scored just 12 goals and 33 points in his first NHL season, but built upon those numbers each of the next two campaigns, topped by his lone 50-goal season, in 1981-82, and earned the first of his four NHL First All-Star team berths.

Much of what he did, though, was overshadowed by the burgeoning legend of Gretzky. It created competition, but only in the best way.

“We knew we were good for each other,” Gretzky said. “There were things that he could do I couldn’t do, and there were things I could do that he couldn’t do. Together we made each other better. Not even in games, but in practices. We pushed each other in practice every day. We went against each other in every drill. We made each other better by playing against each other every day.”

And there never was any jealousy or animosity.

“It almost became a point of fun for us,” said Messier. “We would read things and hear things about how our team would never survive because of the rifts and rivalries that would develop inside our team. We were like brothers, literally. We just really cared for each other off the ice.”

“It amazes me when I see athletes that play together that can’t get along,” added Gretzky. “That was something Mark and I never understood. … There was no animosity whatsoever. I knew what he would do for our team was really important and that was going to be part of the success of the team we had. And he knew what I would bring was part of the success we had. That’s why we could never understand athletes who played with other that couldn’t get along with each other. It’s something that we could never relate to. It’s unheard of. It was a special bond and a special relationship.”

And Messier may be a lot of things, but dummy isn’t one of them.

“We understood what he was and where he was going and what he needed to do,” Messier said. “We also understood that Wayne would be winning a Stanley Cup in his career, and if we were smart there, we’d keep hanging around and pretty soon we’d be winning Stanley Cups. We knew pretty well he would not be going through his career without winning a Stanley Cup.

“They were very good coattails, yes they were.”

While Gretzky was the flashy goal scorer, Messier found a way to do other things.

“Wayne excelled most of the time,” said longtime teammate and friend Kevin Lowe, “but Mark, in a different way, could really sense when the team needed someone to step up and he was good at that. He was comfortable in the role as second fiddle to Wayne. It was all about the team having success. If Wayne became the captain and was the scoring leader and that was his thing, I think Mark figured ‘I’ll do whatever else needed to be done,’ whether it was the physical presence, the scoring when it wasn’t working for Wayne.”

In 1984, when the Oilers won their first Cup, Messier is credited with turning around the final series against the dynastic New York Islanders. The Oilers won Game 1 in Long Island, but the Islanders won in a rout in Game 2, and took a 2-1 lead in Game 3 at Northlands Coliseum.

But that’s when Messier took over. He faked defenseman Gord Dineen to the ice and beat goalie Billy Smith for the most spectacular goal of the series. The Oilers went on to win the game 7-2, and the next two games to clinch their first Cup.

“I recall it vividly,” added Lowe. “We barely won Game 1 and they beat us pretty handily in Game 2. We were a much more confident group, but still not convinced we could beat the Islanders. Winning Game 1 gave us some confidence, but the Islanders took a lot of that away from us beating us pretty handily in Game 2.

“Game 3 is always the most critical game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That was the turning point in that particular game and probably the most pivotal part in the whole series.”

“It typifies his career because he scored big goals for us in pressure situations,” Gretzky said. “A lot of people don’t remember, but until there were about 10 games left in the season, until that time Mark Messier was always a left winger. But Glen Sather and (assistants) John Muckler and Teddy Green, they sat down and said we need a centerman who can be a physical presence and be a scoring threat. They were looking ahead at playing the Islanders and Bryan Trottier. They said we needed someone who could physically challenge Trottier. They moved Mark to center the last 10 games of the season, and he just got better and better. That goal that night was the sparkplug to us winning as many championships as we did.”

Messier finished those playoffs with eight goals and 26 points in just 19 games and took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Messier continued to be the backbone of the dynastic Oilers, winning Cups in 1985, ’87 and ’88.

The ’85 and ’87 Cups came at the expense of the Philadelphia Flyers.

“He could change the tempo of a game,” recalled Brian Propp, a member of those Flyers teams as well as the Boston Bruins squad that Messier’s Oilers trumped in the 1990 final. “He had the ability to change games by scoring a goal, making a big hit, preventing a goal, creating opportunities in the offensive zone.”

On Aug. 9, 1988, the unthinkable happened – Gretzky was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings.

Messier inherited Gretzky’s role as captain, but those around him noticed little change in his game or attitude.

“My role might have changed on the ice because we lost him and maybe I was thrust into more of an offensive role than I was in the past,” said Messier. “But not in the locker room or what I had to do to lead the team, that didn’t seem to change much.”

“He became more of a spokesman (after trade),” said Jim Matheson, the Hall of Fame writer for the Edmonton Journal who has covered the team since it’s inception in the WHA. “People were going to him for opinions on not just Oilers things, but things around the league. Mark became a spokesman. He became pretty thoughtful on things. I don’t think there was any doubt it became Mark’s team.”

“The Stanley Cup in New York was very similar to the first one (in Edmonton in 1984) in that it was so new to everybody. Nobody in Edmonton knew what to expect or how to react, and I felt the same pandemonium-type feeling in New York in 1994.” - Mark Messier

The first Gretzky-less Oilers fell back to 84 points, and with Messier trying to check his friend and former teammate in the first round of the Smythe Division playoffs, Gretzky rallied the Kings from a three-games-to-one deficit en route to the Stanley Cup Final.

The loss motivated the Oilers, especially the ones from the Cup teams that remained, like Lowe and Messier.

“It wasn’t anything to do with Wayne leaving,” Lowe said. “It had to do with the fact that in 1989, L.A. beat us with Wayne in the lineup. … The media played a large part in motivating us. A lot was said about the Oilers’ inability to win without Wayne. In that respect, in 1990 we were fairly motivated.”

A driven Messier posted 45 goals and a career-best 129 points in 1989-90 – earning his first Hart Trophy – and followed that with 22 assists and 31 points in 22 playoff games as the Oilers swept Gretzky’s Kings in the Smythe Division final, and then took out the Chicago Blackhawks in the Campbell Conference final.

Much like he did against the Islanders in 1984, Messier made a series-changing impact in Game 4. The teams had split the first two games in Edmonton, and Chicago took Game 3.

“That was the best game I think Mark ever played,” said Matheson of Game 4. “On the first shift he clubbed somebody over the head, he ran Doug Wilson, probably deserved half-a-dozen penalties, but didn’t get called for a half-a-dozen penalties. The Oilers won 4-2 and Mark had three or four points. That was a defining moment in Mark’s career. … He took over the game from the opening faceoff. There was no way the Oilers were going to lose and he made sure of it.”

The Oilers won the final three games of the series, and finished Stanley Cup No. 5 by taking out the Bruins in five games.

The next year was the last one on Messier’s contract. While playing with Canada’s entry in the 1991 Canada Cup tournament, Messier informed Oilers owner Peter Pocklington that he would not report to training camp without a new deal. Even after the windfall he had gained from trading Gretzky, Pocklington was continuing to hemorrhage money, and instead told GM Glen Sather to trade Messier.

“The year we lost to Minnesota in the (1991 conference) final, I had been hurt most of the second half of the year,” recalled Messier. “That basically spelled the end of the era for the Oilers as we knew them. I knew it from a professional standpoint, but more importantly, at 30-years-old, I was really looking forward to a change in my personal life, as well. Obviously having traveled extensively, it became apparent New York was the biggest challenge, the most exciting place, and all the things it turned out to be, and where I really had my sights set on going.”

The common thought was Messier was on the downside of his career. Neil Smith, the Rangers’ GM, saw in Messier just what his team needed.

“We wanted to get to the next level,” Smith said. “This guy was just such a pure champion. That’s what I needed to put into the organization. He was somebody who had won, and he was somebody who could teach the long-floundering Rangers how to win.”

The trade was consummated on opening night of the 1991-92 season, with Messier coming to the Rangers for the mostly forgettable trio of Louie DeBrusk, Bernie Nicholls and Steven Rice.

“Walt MacPeek, our beat writer from the (Newark) Star-Ledger, wrote at the time that it was a terrible mistake what I was doing, that I was trading away the future of the team,” recalled Smith.

“He really liked everything about New York,” said Lowe. “Even when he was playing with Edmonton he always loved going to New York. He always thought it would be a pretty incredible exclamation point on his career to win there.”

He nearly put it all together in his first season, leading the Rangers to the Presidents’ Trophy and winning his second Hart Trophy, but a second-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh was followed by missing the playoffs completely in 1992-93.

No one knew what to expect when the 1993-94 season started.

“It just looked from the outside that even Messier couldn’t help the cause,” said Lowe, who joined his friend in Manhattan in December 1992.

Instead, Messier guided the Rangers to their second Presidents’ Trophy in three seasons. He scored 84 points, second on the team, but it was his command of the dressing room that led the Rangers on their path to history.

The most memorable moment during the run came in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final. The Rangers trailed the series, 3-2, when Messier made his famous proclamation: “I guarantee we’ll win tonight.”

“I used to drive with Mark,” recalled Lowe. “We were coming home (from practice) and he said something to the effect that I might have done it this time. I said; ‘What did you say?’ And he said you’ll see tomorrow in the paper.

"This has to be one of the most impressive performances by any hockey player in the history of this league."
-- Rangers head coach Mike Keenan told the media after the game.

“I knew what he was doing. As soon as he mentioned it, I knew exactly what he was doing. He was trying to deflect attention onto himself and he was ready to back it up. And make a public statement to the players. Instead of doing it in the dressing room where it can mean something, when you do it publicly like that, it’s even a bolder statement and says a lot to the players.”

“At point of the game I knew what we were up against, how close we were," said Messier. "We needed to find a way to win that game. At that particular time I was so focused on trying to instill the confidence back in our team, so it didn’t matter to me. I knew we needed to win that game because if we won that series, the chances of us winning the Stanley Cup were very good. It was nothing other than trying to instill the confidence that we had shown all year against that team. We had beaten them six times during the regular season, I knew we could go in there and win that game. I wanted our players to believe it when they read the papers that morning.

“Of course, I didn’t factor in 15 million other people reading the same thing.”

One of them was Sather, who had no doubt what the outcome would be.

“If he said it, he believed in it,” said Sather. “If he believed it, there’s no way it wouldn’t happen.”

Amazingly, it did happen. On May 25, 1994, the Devils took a 2-1 lead into the third period when Messier took over. He scored 2:48 into the third, beating Martin Brodeur from the slot to tie the game.

He put Rangers ahead when he knocked in the rebound of an Alexei Kovalev shot at 12:12. And in the game’s waning minutes, with the Devils on the power play and Brodeur pulled for an extra attacker, he scored into the empty net to ice the victory.

“This has to be one of the most impressive performances by any hockey player in the history of this league," Rangers head coach Mike Keenan told the media after the game.

Added Sather; “It’s nice to see a guy hang his cojones on the line and pull through. He did it.”

“There’s certain individuals that come along in life that are blessed with great timing and great ability and Mark is one of those people,” Smith said. “I was absolutely astonished more as a hockey observer and a hockey person than the GM of the Rangers.”

Messier continued his strong play against the Vancouver Canucks in the seven-game final series. He had a goal and four assists through the first six games, but the Rangers, after taking a 3-1 lead, had allowed the Canucks to force a deciding Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.

Prior to Game 7, Messier and Keenan talked about what it would mean to end 54 years of Stanley Cup futility.

"They talk about ghosts and dragons," Messier later told reporters. "I said to Mike; 'You can't be afraid to slay the dragon.' We're going to celebrate this like we've never celebrated anything in our lives."

And once again, the great captain lived up to his words. First Messier assisted on Brian Leetch’s game-opening goal. Adam Graves made it 2-0, but the Canucks’ Trevor Linden made it a one-goal game early in the second.

Clinging to a one-goal lead, Messier again threw his teammates on his enormous back. With the Rangers on a power play, the captain notched a power-play goal at 13:29 to make it 3-1. The Canucks got one goal back in the third period, but Messier’s score held up as the Cup winner.

“It was a storybook, mythical ending,” said Smith. “He gets the winning goal to make it 3-2 and we win the Cup for the first time in 54 years.”

“The Stanley Cup in New York was very similar to the first one (in Edmonton in 1984) in that it was so new to everybody,” said Messier. “Nobody in Edmonton knew what to expect or how to react, and I felt the same pandemonium-type feeling in New York in 1994. It was such a feeling of sheer and utter jubilation and satisfaction.”

Messier played three more seasons with the Rangers, but there were no more team highlights as the Rangers’ title defense was ended by the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round of the playoffs.

The following season, though, Messier would join the exclusive 500-goal club.

"When you look at everything that has gone on, I've never really put a lot of emphasis on goal scoring throughout my career,” he said in a 1995 interview. “Playing behind Wayne all those years, it wasn't until he got traded that I was thrust into a real offensive role. I've never considered myself a natural goal scorer. I've always considered myself a playmaker and have taken pride in setting up my wingers. I guess if you hang around long enough, a few of them are going to go in."

It’s fitting the opponent that night was the Calgary Flames. Messier always had saved his best games for his foes in the Battle of Alberta, going back to Game 1 of the 1983 Smythe Division Final, when Messier scored four goals in the Oilers’ 6-4 win.

“I owe my job in the NHL to him,” said former Flames center Joel Otto, who at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds was enlisted as a physical presence to try and slow Messier. “You always had to play with a little fear and be on top of your game. I could match Mark physically but not in skill.”

Also at MSG that night were Messier’s family and his former coach, Sather. And the eyes of the hockey world were turned to New York that night, as the Rangers-Flames game was the only one on the calendar. Starting the night three goals shy of the magic number, he iced his first hat trick in four years to reach the milestone.

Messier played three more seasons for the Rangers, then departed for the Vancouver Canucks and a reunion with Keenan. Three seasons later he returned to the Rangers in 2000, but watched the playoffs over the final four years of his career.

His final highlight came in his final season, when he passed one of his idols, Gordie Howe, on the all-time scoring list. On Nov. 4, 2003, against the Dallas Stars at MSG – where else? – Messier tied Howe at 1,850 points when he scored on goalie Marty Turco at 1:37 of the second period.

Then, with Dallas down a goal and the Rangers down a man in the game’s waning moments, the Stars pulled Turco. Messier got the puck, and with nothing between him and the Dallas goal but 100 feet of open ice, “The Captain” shot and scored for point No. 1,851.

"I wish it wasn't against us, but everybody in the league is happy for Mark," said Dallas' Bill Guerin that night. "He's been the complete package for 25 years, and he deserves everything he gets. He's just a machine that keeps on going and going."

As he ascends to the highest honor hockey can bestow on a player, Messier will be remembered as much for his goals and points as for how he could galvanize a team.

“When you are younger you are consumed with playing the best you can and being a leader on the ice. Later in my career, I understood there are a lot of players on your team and they’re not always feeling the same as you are. At some point you have to establish a relationship with them and figure out what motivates them, what their problems are, what’s bothering them, so you can extract the best that you can out of them. Because if they’re not going to be at their best you’re not going to have as good a chance as winning.

“I had to establish some kind of relationship with each and every player on a deeper level than just hockey. By doing that, they came to trust me so if I had constructive criticism at times, they would know it’s coming form a place of respect and how we’re going to make this situation better than if I was just attacking their person, which is completely different.”

“He was pretty unique,” said Gretzky. “You could pay a game, and let’s say Paul Coffey had three goals that night. If you walked into the locker room and you didn’t know Paul Coffey’s face, you would think Mark Messier had the hat trick that night because he felt so proud of his teammates. He was the one guy I played with who had the ability to make everybody feel good about themselves. That’s a quality either you have or don’t have, you don’t make that up.”

“When it comes to being a leader, there’s nobody better,” said Matheson. “I think Mark scared his own teammates. … Mark didn’t have to speak much (in the locker room), he just had to look at you. He was like a stern father. He didn’t have to use the rod on you, he just looked at you and you got the message.”

And that message was simple. Work hard. Play hard. Win. And have fun.

“Every time he went out on the ice it was like Christmas morning and there was something under the tree,” said Matheson. “It got more workmanlike as he got older, but he never seemed to lose the boyish enthusiasm for playing the game.”


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