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Messier loved them all

by John McGourty

So, Mark Messier, which of your six Stanley Cups, five with the Edmonton Oilers and one with the New York Rangers, was the greatest?

"All of them."

Most guys say their first Stanley Cup was the best and, in your case, you conquered, in 1984, the four-time defending champion New York Islanders who swept you in the Stanley Cup final the year before?

"All of them."

"Yeah, but you won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player and you turned the series around with your performance in Game 3?

"All of them."

How about the next year, 1985, when you repeated as champions, and made it three straight years in the Final?

"All of them."

How about 1987, when the Oilers won the Smythe Division for the sixth straight time and the Presidents’ Trophy for the second year in a row?

"All of them."

Or 1988, when the Oilers won without Paul Coffey and you reached your highest postseason totals with 11 goals and 23 assists?

"All of them."

Or 1990, when you won without Wayne Gretzky?

"All of them."

OK, 1994 for sure, when you broke the Rangers’ 54-year Stanley Cup drought and personally guaranteed victory in the hard-fought semifinal series with the Devils?

"All of them."

There it is, folks, proof that losing never gets old. In Messier's case, it's not entirely clear if he put more into Game 7s of the Stanley Cup Final than he did on a frosty February Tuesday night game in Winnipeg against the Jets.

Messier came to play every night, with attitude and ferocity. It was his game plan, every game, to make his opponent(s) "have a quiet night," which, I swear, I saw him say to an opponent after a check in the very first game I saw him play.

The world became aware of Messier's ferocity, his ability to dominate and make a difference, in Game 3 against the Islanders in 1984. Grant Fuhr was outstanding in a 1-0 series opener at the Nassau Coliseum, but the Islanders crushed the Oilers, 6-1, in Game 2. Messier had points in 12 of 14 Stanley Cup Playoff games that season, but had been blanked in the first two Final games.

Down 2-1 at the midpoint of Game 3, Messier exploded into the Islanders' zone and blasted a wrist shot past Billy Smith. The Oilers would score seven unanswered goals in a 7-2 rout. Messier also had the goal that made it 5-2. The Oilers outscored the Islanders 12-4 in the next two games to win in five.

"Once we won Game 3, it seemed the floodgates opened," Messier said. "The Islanders were a veteran team that had played a lot of hockey. They were beaten up, but hanging on like true champions. We were too strong and powerful to be held off any longer.

"There was a big learning curve that first year against them and we knew we had to go through them to get to the other side. They didn't win four straight Stanley Cups without a lot of guts and courage. They helped us learn those lessons and we came back to beat them."

Messier was injured for a good part of the next season, but returned in time to have a strong postseason.

"I stretched knee ligaments," Messier said. "The best part of winning in 1984 was just that, winning, and the best part about winning in 1985 was we felt we had ourselves in position to do it. Now, we knew what it took to win. We could set our sights on the regular season, get situated and prepared for the playoffs. Perhaps we were able to enjoy the journey a little more than we did the first year when we were so focused on winning.

"The two Stanley Cups in 1987 and 1988 were fun because we had more guys on the team that hadn't won before," Messier continued. "It was fun watching them, guys like Risto Siltanen, Esa Tikkanen, Craig Muni, Mike Krushelnyski and Craig MacTavish, go through the experience. We were upset about losing out the year before and that 1987 team may have been the most talented team that we had in Edmonton. The defense was very strong, we had incredible depth through four lines and Siltanen and Jaroslav Pouzar rejoined the team."

Economics forced the trade of Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles in 1989. Messier knew an era was ending, that the Oilers wouldn’t be able to keep together the remaining core of the team. The Oilers beat the Boston Bruins in the 1990 Stanley Cup Final for the second time in three years.

"We never felt like we had to prove we could win without Wayne," Messier said. "That was a bittersweet Cup for a lot of us. As excited as were to win, we all felt sad he wasn't there to share because of what we had been through together. We knew how big a part of the team Wayne was to the Oilers. We were trying to show that we must go on. We had a professional obligation to each other, the organization, the fans and the city to continue to play well and win a championship and that's what we were able to do."

Winning is very nice, but you can't always win. The Oilers' era ended in a hard-fought, five-game series in the Campbell Conference Final at the hands of the Minnesota North Stars. The Oilers fought gallantly that year, but couldn't overcome the leadership of Bobby Smith, who had two game-winning goals.

"That was tough," Messier admitted. "We had a great run, beating Calgary and Los Angeles. I played on a bad knee in the second half of the season. It never healed. It was the end of the era. We hung on for all we could. Minnesota was a young, strong team, much like us against the Islanders. We ran up against a team that was strong and playing well and they were too much for us."

Messier looked and played bigger than his 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds. That's why Calgary Flames GM Cliff Fletcher signed 6-foot-4, 200-pound Joel Otto to play opposite Messier. The two had many a scuffle, traded many an elbow and pounded each other for seven years. Messier earned Otto's respect.

"I owe my job in the NHL to Mark," Otto said with a laugh. "Calgary had smaller, skilled centers and needed some size down the middle against Messier. Messier was one of the greatest and brought everything to the table every night.

"He was physically strong with a mean side to him that was unpredictable. I always had to play with a little fear and be on top of my game. I got more ice than I probably should have, but I could match physical strength with him, if not skill. Every night, no matter who he was playing, Mark got the treatment that I gave him and still he scored. And, unfortunately, too many times, he was the victor in the game."

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