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WHA days laid the foundation for Messier's pro career

by Evan Weiner

Mark Messier was the last active WHA player in the NHL when he finished his career in 2004.
When Mark Messier is introduced as one of the newest members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, few people will be asking him about his days as a member of the World Hockey Association's Cincinnati Stingers.

Messier didn’t put up big numbers with the Stingers in 1978-79 — one goal, 10 assists and 59 penalty minutes in 47 games. But that’s not bad for a kid who didn’t turn 18 until midway through the season. In fact, Cincinnati was Messier's second WHA team that season — he originally signed with the Indianapolis Racers, but played just five games there before the Racers went out of business. Going to Cincinnati may have been one of the best things that happened to him.

Mike Liut, Cincinnati's goaltender at the time, said he, Messier and another Hall of Famer, Mike Gartner, learned an awful lot from coach Floyd Smith and veterans like Rick Dudley. To Liut, playing in Cincinnati was a great experience.

Liut did note that there was no predicting the future when it came to assessing the young Messier.

"Mess played with us in my second year in Cincinnati," Liut said. "Mess came to the team later, I would say the second half of the season. He was playing Tier Two (junior hockey in 1977-78) and he was 17 years old. It wasn't fair for him. He was just a young colt that was running around.

"You really didn't have a great sense of what the potential was — but then again, it’s very difficult at 17 for a player to show you the greatness that Mess ultimately played to."

Messier finished the 1977-78 season with the Western Canadian Hockey League's Portland Winter Hawks and appeared in seven playoff games, scoring four goals and adding an assist. He had spent the regular season with the St. Albert Saints and put up good numbers for a 16-year-old playing Tier Two, scoring 27 goals and ringing up 74 points. But Messier was back in Tier Two with St. Albert in 1978-79 and put up 15 goals and 18 assists in 17 games before accepting a 10-game tryout with Indianapolis.

He signed with Indy on Nov. 5, 1978, three days after the Racers traded Wayne Gretzky to Edmonton. Messier played in five games with the Racers and his final statistics — no goals, no assists, no penalty minutes — didn’t exactly suggest Hall of Fame potential.

Racers management decided not to sign him. The franchise was about ready to fold anyway, and Messier ended up with Cincinnati.

"(With Messier), it's as much leadership and, obviously, that's not going to be there when you are 17 years old," Liut said.

Messier doesn’t disagree with Liut’s assessment.

“What does a 17-year-old know?” he asked.

Despite having Gartner and a bunch of recognizable names, the Stingers finished fifth with a 33-41-6 record and 72 points, two more than the Birmingham Bulls, meaning the Stingers qualified for the playoffs.

But the Stingers were beaten by Gordie and Mark Howe's New England Whalers, two games to one, in the first round of the Avco Cup playoffs — after which the franchise was suspended. The Stingers and Birmingham did not make the cut in the "expansion" that brought four WHA cities, Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec City and Winnipeg, into the NHL.

"We had along, with those two (Messier and Gartner), Robbie Ftorek, Rick Dudley, Blaine Stoughton was there for a while, among other guys,” Liut said. “Craig Norwich was a good player for us at that time. A very skilled defenseman.”

Liut said Dudley, the Stingers captain, was extremely important to the development of a lot of the team’s youngsters, including himself and Gartner.

"He reached out to the young kids, and it was very much the thinking of the time that if you were a young player and showed a willingness to learn the game and learn to compete at that level, the older players were so confident in their ability to play, they would reach out to the younger players.

"For me, it started with Rick," Liut said. "He was very supportive of my career. I roomed with Pat Stapleton, who I think was one of the first psychological thinkers about what happens in a career and what is going on for these young players.

”I had the opportunity to meet Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Dave Keon,” Liut said. “All were great to us young players. In their eyes we weren't any different. It made us feel like we were part of that club that we had earned a right into that club. They were really giving of their time, they were great guys.”

But none of that mattered. The Stingers’ ownership took a $3.15 million cash payment and disbanded the franchise.

Gartner, who had scored 27 goals, was selected fourth overall in the 1979 Draft by Washington. Messier, two years younger, didn’t draw the same level of interest — he lasted until the third round and was the 48th player selected, by Edmonton, which also took Kevin Lowe in the first round and Glenn Anderson in the fourth round. That draft would provide the foundation for the Oilers’ dynasty.

Liut was “reclaimed” by the St. Louis Blues, the NHL team that drafted him, and would have a solid NHL career. He was the last active WHA goaltender to play in the NHL.

Several other Stingers also wound up in the NHL.

Former Whaler Mike Liut recalls the influence of hockey veteran Rick Dudley had on him and fellow teammate Messier.

Dudley returned to the Buffalo Sabres midway through the 1978-79 season. Barry Melrose went to Winnipeg along with Norwich and Peter Marsh. Robbie Ftorek ended up in Quebec along with Reg Thomas, Barry Legge, Michel Dion and Jaime Hislop. Paul Stewart would make his first NHL appearance with Quebec and then became an NHL referee years later. Dave Debol played some games in Hartford as did Chuck Luksa. Darryl Maggs played five games with Toronto. Bryon Baltimore joined Messier in Edmonton for two games. Former NHL pest Bryan “Bugsy” Watson would briefly be Messier’s coach with the Oilers in 1980-81. Floyd Smith ended up as Toronto’s coach.

Messier scored just 12 goals as an 18-year-old with Edmonton. Two years later, he would score 50 goals for the first and only time in his career.

Messier was a central figure in Edmonton’s five Stanley Cup championships and helped the New York Rangers break their 54-year Cup drought in 1994. Messier won the Conn Smythe as the 1984 Stanley Cup MVP, helping the Oilers to the franchise’s first Cup. He won Hart Trophies as the NHL’s MVP in 1990 and 1992 and was a four-time first-team All Star.

In all, Messier scored 694 goals and had 1,887 points. In the playoffs, Messier had 109 and 295 points. He is the NHL’s second highest career point getter behind Gretzky.

Messier was the last active WHA player in the NHL when he finished his career in 2004. Liut, oddly enough, gave up Gartner's 500th NHL goal.

Neither the Racers or the Stingers will be topic A at Messier’s Hall of Fame introduction, but it was in Indianapolis and Cincinnati that Messier learned the pro game. In fact, the Racers now have two players, Gretzky and Messier, enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.


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