NEW YORK --
Earlier this year, hockey executive Jimmy Devellano, New York Rangers
and Team USA goalie Mike Richter
and six-time Stanley Cup winner Mark Messier
were selected to receive the Lester Patrick
Award for outstanding service to hockey in the United States.
On Wednesday night, the trio of hockey luminaries showed why they are considered American hockey treasures -- despite the fact that both Messier and Devellano were born in Canada.
During the course of a 75-minute roundtable -- hosted by Rangers broadcaster Sam Rosen and with Lester Patrick
's grandchildren, Craig and Dick Patrick looking on from the audience -- Devellano, Richter and Messier spoke eloquently about their love of the game, as well as many of the issues unique to the growing of the sport in America.
Messier may have won five Stanley Cups while playing for the Edmonton Oilers
in the city of his birth, but he has clearly taken to the United States since being traded to the Rangers in 1991 and becoming one of this city's most-visible icons.
"I was adventurous," Messier told the appreciative crowd in Gotham Hall. "I was 30-years-old, had won five Cups in seven years and thought I really knew the recipe for winning. In my heart, it was time to move.
"I came to New York, and I felt I was ready for it. I felt I was ready to tackle the city and take on what the city had to offer."
That's exactly what he did, becoming a bigger and bigger friend to USA Hockey in the process. In 1994, he led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup, which made hockey matter not only in New York, but throughout America.
He still takes that responsibility to growing the American game seriously, as he illustrated by discussing the state of youth hockey in depth on Wednesday night.
He shared many opinions, but was adamant in his belief that we are "professionalizing our sport too early. He bemoaned the fact that players as young as 7 or 8 are being "fast-tracked" on select teams and through private lessons.
"Sports is about the physical, mental and emotional well-being of the kids," he said. "The coaching at the minor level shouldn't be about winning and losing. It should be about teaching our kids to be good citizens."
That message -- echoed by both Devellano, who argued that kids should play more "house league" hockey and not be subjected to too much travel, and Richter repeatedly throughout the evening -- is one of the lasting legacies of Lester Patrick
, the hockey visionary who is the namesake of the award.
Patrick was an innovator who changed the very nature of the professional game with his foresight and rules changes as the first GM of the New York Rangers
, but he was also a tireless champion of the sport at its most basic level, believing it to be a tool for children to find out who they are and who they can be in an atmosphere unfettered by parental influence or restrictive rules.
Richter, the Rangers goalie on that 1994 Cup-winning team, spoke eloquently of the joy he finds in the simple act of skating.
"Just to be on your own two feet and going that fast is an amazing feeling," he said.
Upon mastering that liberating act, it is natural to gravitate to organized hockey, he argued. But the association will be short-lived, he believes, unless the conditions are right to forge a tight bond.
"You play because it is enjoyable and gives something back to you," he said. "If you take that joy away, kids are going to leave (the game)."
"(The Patricks) have become the royal family of hockey. We all owe so much to that family." - Mike Richter
Fortunately, none of Wednesday night's honorees walked away from the sport. Each has won at least one Stanley Cup and changed the game with his contributions. Hockey, especially in the United States, is richer for having these men as a part of the global hockey community.
The trio joined an exclusive 44-year-old fraternity of Lester Patrick
Award winners. It is a brotherhood that now numbers 114 individual men and women and three Olympic teams.
As the ceremony ended, it was once again the well-spoken Richter, drafted into the NHL by then-Ranger GM Craig Patrick
, who reminded the crowd what this magical evening was all about.
"(The Patricks) have become the royal family of hockey," Richter said of the family that has placed three generations of its sons in the NHL and the Hockey Hall of Fame. "We all owe so much to that family."