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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Mark Messier: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Intense, emotional leader captained Oilers, Rangers to Stanley Cup

by John Mackinnon / Special to NHL.com

When you visualize Mark Messier in his prime, a lengthy highlight reel comes to mind.

And a riveting one at that.

Close your eyes and there's the former Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers great striding up the wing, unleashing a lethal wrist shot off the wrong foot, generating power with that unmistakable hitch in his trailing leg.

 

Video: Mark Messier was one of NHL's greatest leaders

 

For Oilers fans, his series-changing goal on a dazzling solo rush in Game 3 of the 1984 Stanley Cup Final against the New York Islanders was one of a string of transformative moments that remain vivid in memory.

The Oilers had won the series opener 1-0 on Long Island, then lost Game 2 6-1. Messier's goal tied the game 2-2 and was a rallying point in the Oilers' 7-2 Game 3 victory. They swept all three games in Edmonton to win their first of five Stanley Cup championships going away.

"That, to me, was the defining moment for Mark," Wayne Gretzky, a Messier teammate with the Oilers and Rangers, said years later. "It proved he wasn't just physical, [that] he had great talent.

 

MARK MESSIER CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,756 | Goals: 694 | Assists: 1,193 | Points: 1,887

 

"I remember us all sitting on the bench, the crowd going crazy, and we were all so excited, too."

Messier had imposed his will on that Stanley Cup Final game. That ability became his trademark, as Messier would become the only player to captain two franchises to the Stanley Cup.

And it was on full display for the Rangers in Game 6 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Final against the rival New Jersey Devils.

Messier had said New York, trailing the series 3-2, would win that elimination game in New Jersey. This was the famous guarantee of Messier legend.

The legend swiftly became fact when Messier, with the Rangers trailing 2-1, scored three straight goals for a 4-2 win. The Rangers won Game 7 in double overtime at Madison Square Garden and eliminated the Vancouver Canucks in seven games - Messier scoring the winning goal in the deciding game -- in the Final to end a 54-year Stanley Cup drought on Broadway.

Throughout his career, for early-bird fans, Messier's mere body language during the pregame warmup was telling. His ramrod-straight posture, strong, purposeful strides and forbidding visage, highlighted by laser-beam eyes, all made for an intimidating presence.

Video: 1994 Conf Final, Gm6: Captain Messier's Guarantee

With his all-around talent and his often punishing game, Messier established a wide cushion of space to work in during his 25-year NHL career. He did it by being an updated version of the legendary Gordie Howe. Messier possessed elite skill and speed, his game spiced with physicality and a mean streak, when required, like Howe's.

When he retired in 2004, Messier had played 1,756 games, second only to Howe's 1,767, and scored 1,887 points, second to longtime teammate Gretzky's 2,857. Only Howe and Chris Chelios, who each played 26 NHL seasons, could claim more longevity than Messier.

Lovers of hockey romance still can see Messier -- an active member of the Rangers at that time -- playing for the Oilers alumni at the first Heritage Classic at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium on Nov. 22, 2003.

As snow fell on a crowd of 57,167, Commonwealth Stadium became the world's biggest snow globe, and there was Messier, scraper in hand, sporting a black balaclava under his trademark helmet, cleaning the ice surface, as he had surely done as a boy on the neighborhood rinks in St. Albert, Alberta, the Edmonton suburb where he grew up and played junior hockey for the St. Albert Saints.

 

Others instantly visualize Messier, holding the Stanley Cup overhead with a gap-toothed grin, looking like a young boy on Christmas morning, clutching the present of his dreams.

Messier helped the Oilers win the Cup five times (1984, '85, '87, '88 and '90) in seven seasons, the last one coming two years after the Oilers traded Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings (with Messier becoming captain in '88). He got to clutch the ultimate prize a sixth time with the Rangers.

"Winning five Cups in seven years is an amazing feat that may never be repeated, certainly in today's game," Messier said in February of 2007, when the Oilers lifted his No. 11 jersey to the rafters of Rexall Place. "You've got to have some tough men, you have to have a lot of trust in each other, your relationships have to be strong."

Messier began his NHL career as a left wing, and an outstanding one, making the First All-Star Team at left wing in 1981-82 and '82-83. He was moved to center in the 1984 Stanley Cup Final to match up against the Islanders' top center, the highly skilled, intensely physical Bryan Trottier. The move proved so successful that it became permanent, giving the Oilers an unmatched 1-2 tandem at center of Gretzky and Messier.

As he matured, Messier came to personify leadership in the NHL. It is sometimes an intangible element, but Messier's leadership qualities were not merely visible, they were palpable.

For starters, there was that glare, which opponents took lightly at their peril.

The substance behind the stare was made apparent in spectacular fashion in Game 4 of the 1990 Campbell Conference Final against the Chicago Blackhawks, who led the series 2-1. Messier had two goals and two assists in the game and played like a force of nature, storming up and down the ice, as the Oilers won 4-2 to seize command of the series they went on to win.

"Mark showed great leadership and was intimidating ... he intimidated the referee and could have been called for 15 stick fouls," Chicago coach Mike Keenan said at the time, with open admiration, of the player he would coach with the Rangers in a few years.

Video: 1994 Cup Final, Gm7: Rangers end 54-year Cup drought

Messier won his first Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player in 1990, the year of the Oilers' most recent Cup championship, and won another one in '92 with the Rangers. In winning the Cup in both cities, he endeared himself as powerfully to New York as he had to Edmonton.

After six seasons with the Rangers, the last of which saw him reunited with Gretzky, Messier signed with the Vancouver Canucks in July 1997, only to return in 2000 and play his final four NHL seasons with New York.

He was an engaged, commanding presence to the end. Less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, there was Messier before the Rangers' 2001-02 home opener at Madison Square Garden, donning the Fire Department of New York helmet that had belonged to Ray Downey, the FDNY's Chief of Special Operations who died at ground zero, in a powerful gesture of solidarity.

Since his playing days, Messier has been showered with accolades, including his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame (2007) and Canada's Sports Hall of Fame (2009) and his number being retired at both Madison Square Garden and at Rexall Place.

Edmonton and St. Albert staged three days of civic celebrations for Messier when his jersey was retired in 2007, with St. Albert naming a street and an arena after its favorite son. Also that year, the NHL established the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award, given "to the player who exemplifies great leadership qualities to his team, on and off the ice during the regular season." Messier selects the annual recipient -- it takes the ultimate leader to know a leader.

Messier's receiving so many honors has led to another series of indelible images -- the tear-stained, emotionally overcome former athlete, delivering heartfelt thank-you speeches interrupted by frequent pauses to compose himself and staunch the flow of tears. The passion that he expressed through his speed, skill and physical intimidation on the ice is shown by gratitude and love off it -- love for his family, teammates and friends, and for the memories of the game that bind them all together.

The day the Oilers retired Messier's number, Kevin Lowe, his longtime Edmonton teammate and it then-general manager, traded popular forward Ryan Smyth to the New York Islanders. Ever the leader, Messier said he was proud of Lowe for making such a controversial deal, and never mind the awkward timing. Messier had Lowe's back, and he made sure everyone knew it.

The dignitaries at the jersey retirement that night included former teammates, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Glen Sather, the architect of the Oilers' glory teams and president of the Rangers.

"To see the players on the ice, to hear the words from (then-Oilers coach and former Messier teammate) Craig MacTavish, the fans, to have the Stanley Cup [on hand], it just didn't need anything else," an emotional Messier said of the festivities. "It was just perfect."

 

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