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NHL Heritage Classic

Mark Messier aims to put on show

Hoping he and Oilers teammates can thrill fans in Heritage Classic Alumni Game

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

WINNIPEG -- Mark Messier, in full uniform, was holding court with the media a stick length from what might have been the world's largest pizza, the pie picked apart by teammates milling around the Edmonton Oilers dressing room at MTS Centre.

"Come on, we're going to have a party," he announced as he lumbered into the room, waving reporters in behind him.

There was cold beer in the fridge, a pail of bubble gum on a table, wet jerseys and stockings in piles, balled-up rolls of tape scattered on the floor -- and more than a few pairs of eyeglasses above stalls.

Messier was truly, comfortably in his element following a brisk midday practice, as was every one of his Oilers teammates as they prepared for the 2016 Rogers NHL Heritage Classic Alumni Game on Saturday (4 p.m. ET; NHL Network, SN, NHL.com).

Tweet from @EdmontonOilers: The #Oilers Alumni have hit the ice! #HeritageClassic pic.twitter.com/wGYckPGxJu

"There's a certain culture that you grow up with in a hockey locker room," Messier said. "Probably more importantly [now], because of the type of experiences that we had together, we cement some of those deep-seeded lessons in all of us. When we come back here years after, it seems to be very second nature to everybody."

The Oilers alumni had followed the Jets onto the ice at MTS Centre, open practices held for roughly 5,000 enthusiastic fans. And where Jets icon Teemu Selanne had bathed in his team's brightest spotlight, it was Wayne Gretzky and Messier who commanded the most attention among the Oilers during a brisk session that ended with an energetic scrimmage.

"We always wanted to put on a show for the fans," Messier said with a grin reminiscent of his team's glory days, when the free-wheeling Oilers won the Stanley Cup five times between 1984 and 1990.

"Wherever we travelled, we had great practices. They were short, 30 or 40 minutes, but we always did it at a high tempo and anybody who was able to watch our practices, it was a beautiful concert, so to speak. We didn't want to do anything different today. We wanted to put on a little bit of a show for the fans. They made the effort to come here so we wanted to do what we could."

The Oilers had cast an eye on Winnipeg's practice, Messier confessed, scouting the opposition being a time-honored tradition in hockey.

"We had some bird dogs out there, giving us some reports," he joked. "Yes, we did. Absolutely.

"Everybody has a lot of pride in themselves, as a person and as an athlete. I don't think that's ever squished because of your age. You can be out of the game for how many years and it doesn't matter. Everybody wants to put on a good show. Most importantly, both teams will want to put on a good show for the fans. That's the most important thing, right?"

In this game, the 55-year-old Messier laces up as a retired player, something he couldn't say in the inaugural Heritage Classic at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium in 2003. Back then, he was still an active NHL player, given permission by the New York Rangers to participate with his former Oilers teammates against alumni from the Montreal Canadiens.

It was a bitterly cold day. Canadiens goalie José Theodore pulled a toque over his mask in a practical fashion statement, while Messier and Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur famously shoveled snow off the rink between periods, their exhaled breath rising in vapor clouds.

"I played in some cold games growing up," Messier recalled of his youth in Alberta. "I played all of my minor hockey outside until midget and there were some miserable days; a lot of tears with frozen feet around the old stove in the dressing room, trying to thaw out. Like I tell my kids, it put a little salt in all of us and it's not a bad thing."

Oilers and Jets alumni needn't be concerned about the wind-chill factor on Saturday; it's expected to be about 50 degrees, which is downright balmy by Winnipeg's late October standards.

Even if it took probably days to chip ice off his body following that bone-chilling 2003 game, Messier has warm memories of an event that set the table for the hugely popular series of outdoor games that followed.

"It was a real novel idea at the time, and I don't think anyone expected what was going to come of it," he said. "You couldn't have picked a better city to try it in than Edmonton, knowing they'd get the support and the relationship the Oilers had with the city. Of course, you bring in all the great Canadiens players on top of it …

"It seems like an obvious idea now, but at the time it seemed a little risky. It's become a huge event for the NHL, a great marketing event for the League to link the past, present and future."

It's also a wonderful opportunity for yesterday's players, the superstars and the fourth-line skaters who were valuable cogs on their teams, to renew friendships and tell stories, some of which have grown far beyond the truth.

Oilers alumni have seen a bit of each other in recent years with the closing of Rexall Place, or Northlands Coliseum, as Messier remembers the team's old barn, and the opening of Rogers Place last week.

"Talk to everyone in here and they'd want to do this 10 times a year," Messier said. "Everybody really enjoys it. Just because you get older doesn't mean you're less competitive."

The unsung heroes this weekend, he added, might be the athletic therapists who will work on bodies whose muscle memory is, well, a little forgetful.

As for one of the most fearsome pieces of Messier's arsenal, the legendary killer stare that would burn like lasers through opponents and more than a few teammates?

"I don't think so," he said, laughing. "Maybe 30 years ago that might have been useful.

"Both teams are going to play their very hardest. However hard that is, nobody knows. A lot of players haven't skated much and hockey is an incredibly hard game. It's a reminder when you come and do something like this, how much you can appreciate the players who are actually in condition to play hockey and how hard it is to play, from leg strength to conditioning to flexibility. Everyone will give his best, I can guarantee that. What level we can take it to, who knows?"

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