One day before Mark Messier scored his hat trick 23 years ago, three goals that pulled the New York Rangers off the mat and willed them to a win that for half the game looked like an impossibility, he spoke to a gathering of reporters at practice.
Messier had a message to send before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New Jersey Devils on May 25, 1994. With the Rangers trailing 3-2 in the best-of-7 series, his intention was to show confidence in his teammates that they could go into New Jersey, win Game 6, avoid elimination, come back across the Hudson River and win Game 7 at Madison Square Garden two days later.
"We knew we couldn't count on New Jersey to play bad. We just had to figure out a way to play better," said Messier, New York's captain and top-line center. "My intent was to make sure that every person on the team knew that I believed that we could win the series. That was the inspiration behind it."
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Messier's inspiration led to a guarantee that turned into one of the all-time great New York sports moments.
"I know we're going to go in and win Game 6 and bring it back here for Game 7," Messier said May 24, according to the New York Daily News. "We have enough talent and experience to turn the tide. That's exactly what we're going to do in Game 6."
The Rangers did, coming back after trailing by two goals to win 4-2.
Messier set up Alex Kovalev for New York's first goal at 18:19 of the second period, cutting the Devils' lead to 2-1. He then tied the game 2-2 at 2:48 of the third period, gave the Rangers a 3-2 lead at 12:12 and scored a shorthanded empty-net goal at 18:15.
Video: Memories: Messier guarantees Game 6
The Rangers returned to the Garden for Game 7, won 2-1 on Stephane Matteau's double-overtime goal and went on to end a 54-year Stanley Cup drought by defeating the Vancouver Canucks in a seven-game Final.
Messier's guarantee still resonates for him, his teammates, the Devils and Rangers fans today.
It was fresh, exciting, bold material to splash on the back pages of the New York tabloids.
The Daily News' headlines read "MESS SEZ WE'LL WIN" and "RANGER CAPTAIN GUARANTEES WIN OVER DEVILS."
The New York Post used "WE'LL WIN TONIGHT" with a picture of Messier and called it "Captain Courageous' bold prediction."
Messier said he didn't realize when he made the guarantee that what he said would make the back pages.
"I was so focused in on our own team that I wasn't really looking into everybody else getting up and reading the New York Post," Messier said. "I thought there would be 19 or 20 players reading it, and anybody in the Rangers organization was going to be reading it. But I forgot about the New Jersey Devils reading and the other millions of New Yorkers. But at that point it didn't matter."
Messier could have just said his piece in the dressing room, but he wanted to do something bold.
"It was calculated," he said, "but at the same I was just trying to figure out a way to let the guys know that I really believed in them other than just telling them."
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He knew every one of his teammates would see it too, because their routine for game days in New Jersey was to meet at the Rangers facility in Rye, New York, and take a bus to Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
"We'd all read the paper in the morning," Messier said. "I knew the players would be on the bus going over to New Jersey reading the papers."
But the players, at least according to former defenseman Brian Leetch, thought it was funny.
"How a simple statement about thinking we were a good enough team to win and that he believed we would win turned into an NYC media guarantee, back-page headlines, made us laugh a little," Leetch said. "It's what he did on the ice in Game 6 that I still shake my head at."
The Devils knew about Messier's guarantee too, but they weren't angered by it, former New Jersey defenseman Ken Daneyko said. Instead, Daneyko thinks it might have motivated the Devils.
"It probably did give us a jump-start, because for 30 minutes in that hockey game we were up two [goals] and we could have been up more because we were dominant," Daneyko said. "The tides turned on that late goal in the second, and Kovalev and Mark took over. You tip your cap because a great player did his thing. That's why Mark Messier is one of the greatest players of all time."
Video: Mark Messier was one of NHL's greatest leaders
Maybe so, but Daneyko is right: For half the game it wasn't looking good for Messier or the Rangers. The guarantee was looking like a flop. If not for goalie Mike Richter, the Rangers probably wouldn't have had a chance to come back; they could have been on their way to a blowout loss instead of trailing 2-0.
"What was going through my mind [at that time] was without Richter in the first two periods it would have been over a long time ago," Messier said.
Daneyko said he recalls seeing the frustration on Messier's face in the second period after a scrum behind the net.
"He looked dead to rights, just like his team," Daneyko said. "But it was like a heavyweight boxing match where the count was at eight, nine and he gets up and somehow finds a way to will his team. I thought Mark was done, and I guess I underestimated how great his leadership was. The ref kept the fight going. It was that close to being over in a knockout."
Messier said the Rangers were upbeat during the second intermission after scoring.
"We knew we hadn't played well, but we had a chance, we had an opportunity thanks to Mike," he said. "Now let's go take advantage of it."
They did. Messier said they would.
"It wasn't lip service," Messier said. "We were a better team."