Mark Messier said an official goodbye to his playing days on Wednesday afternoon with the same humility, selflessness, and gratitude toward fans that defined his 25 NHL seasons and made him a hero to so many people.
In a formal news conference, held at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, Messier faced family, friends, longtime teammates and others, thanking everyone who contributed to his Hall of Fame career. The only man to captain two different franchises to Stanley Cup victories made it clear that the thing he appreciated most about his playing days were all the people he met along the way.
Messier initially announced his plans to retire on Sept. 12 of last year, when the Rangers organization began preparing for Thursday's "Celebration of the Captain." The eagerly-awaited Mark Messier Night ceremony, which precedes the Rangers' game against the Edmonton Oilers, will be Rangers fans' chance to honor the man who in 1994 led them to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years.
Wednesday's press conference, part of the lead-up to Mark Messier Night, was the first time Messier had discussed retirement with a formal gathering of hockey reporters. And although it had been more than 21 months since The Captain last played in a Rangers uniform, the raw emotion of the moment was entirely palpable. A choked-up Messier fought through tears as he recalled key moments in his career and reflected on what it meant to play hockey in New York.
"One of the things that makes it so special is the people. I am fortunate to have met some unbelievable people right from Day One all the way through to the end," he said. "I think that alone is the one thing that is the most important thing for me - the people and friendships that I've made over the last 26 years or more."
Even the Stanley Cup, the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Hart Trophy were on hand Wednesday afternoon for Messier's news conference, which was televised live on MSG Network and streamed over the internet. Rangers broadcaster John Davidson served as the emcee, and joining Messier and Davidson on the stage were four men who were all very much a part of The Captain's NHL experience.
There was Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather, Messier's first NHL coach with Edmonton, whose ties to the Messier family went back to his own junior hockey days playing against Mark's father, Doug. There was Edmonton Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe, who played more games as Messier's teammate than any other NHL player. There was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who so memorably presented Messier the Stanley Cup in 1994, and there was Madison Square Garden Chairman James L. Dolan, who brought Messier back to New York in 2000, enabling him to finish his career with the Rangers.
Dolan, speaking first, noted that there have been almost 900 men to wear the Rangers uniform, but Messier would become only the fourth to have his number retired by the team. He said he could not think of anyone more deserving of this "honor awarded so rarely" - for his off-ice achievements as well as what he did on the ice The MSG Chairman noted that having No. 11 in the Garden rafters would let the world know that Mark Messier "will always be a New York Ranger."
Bettman then took the podium, calling Messier "truly one of the legends of the game." He said he believed Messier was one of the great captains in all of sports and that nobody could be better at leading a team.
"Having your name forever in the rafters of Madison Square Garden is an honor you so richly deserve," said the NHL commissioner.
For Sather, a chance to reflect on Messier's career was an opportunity to speak of his close relationship with the Messier family. He said would never forget that Mark, after winning his first of six Stanley Cup championships in 1984, threw his gloves in the stands and then waved at his family members, who had seen him reach hockey's pinnacle in his own hometown. That moment, Sather said, made him realize just how special Messier was, not just as a player, but as a person.
Sather also recalled the day in September 1991, when he traded Messier to the Rangers.
"One of the toughest decisions I had to make was when we traded him to New York from Edmonton," said Sather. "It wasn't a lot of fun to watch that team be dismantled. We had a lot of great players, and he was the heart and soul of that club."
After the trade, Sather told former Rangers GM Neil Smith just how much Messier would do for the team, and the praise was so glowing that Sather wasn't sure Smith believed him.
"He's been the kind of player that everyone in this league can look up to and follow," said Sather. "He's been a great example for every player in the league. To have his number hanging in the Garden is just tremendous for us."
The last of the guests to pay tribute to Messier was Lowe, who suited up for more than 1,000 NHL games as a teammate and assisted on 43 of Messier's 694 career goals. As teen-agers, Lowe and Messier were selected by Edmonton in the same 1979 NHL Entry Draft, and Lowe can still remember that first year with the Oilers.
"Wayne (Gretzky) was the star," Lowe recalled. "But Mark was Edmonton's citizen and native son."
Lowe concluded his remarks by discussing what it meant for him to take part in his longtime captain's farewell news conference.
"I have been fortunate in my NHL career to win championships and play in All-Star Games, and ... I've also been asked to assist Wayne Gretzky in selecting Canada's Olympic team," Lowe said. "But I've had no greater thrill than to be asked to be here today and sit beside you, Mark."
After Lowe spoke, a short video about Messier's career was played, leading right into Davidson's introduction of Messier himself. This was not the first time Messier had been introduced to the New York media in a grand setting, but it was the first time he was not wearing a Rangers jersey for them.
Messier began to compare the anticipation of Thursday's "Celebration of the Captain" festivities to the way he would feel at the beginning of an NHL season when he looked ahead to big games on the schedule. As he made this comparison, he began to fight back tears, clearly overcome by the emotion of the moment.
He then read a letter to the Rangers fans, whom he said he had referred to as "The Garden Faithful" during his playing days. As he recalled his first encounter with the true blue crowd -- a ceremony preceding the 1991-92 home opener, -- emotion overcame him again.
"When J.D introduced me as the next captain of the New York Rangers, I felt a tremendous pride," he read. "But I never expected to be greeted with that kind of ovation. I remember saying to myself as the crowd roared 'I will die trying to bring the Stanley Cup to the fans of New York.' And with that ovation on opening night, a relationship began with you that I will never forget and I will cherish forever."
Messier's love of the city and its people was evident throughout his speech Wednesday, particularly when he discussed the day he returned to New York in 2000 and when he looked back at the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, noting the city's indomitable spirit.
"Having had the chance to finish my career here was obviously a dream come true," Messier said.
He concluded his remarks by thanking those who had helped him in his career, giving special mention to Sather.
"Other than my dad, nobody believed in me more and did more for me as a person and a player than you did, Glen," he said through tears.
After his prepared remarks, Messier took questions from the media. He explained that he would not carry feeling of sadness into the Jan. 12 ceremony but rather a sense of celebration for all the people that "I have been blessed to have around me." Everyone he had encountered in his years at Madison Square Garden had meant something to him, he said, and this would be a chance for him to acknowledge that.
He also made it clear that he did not see Jan. 12, 2006, as an end to the era that included the 1994 Stanley Cup championship, but rather as a kind of reunion, similar to the Mike Richter Night event two years ago. He also said he looked forward to being part of such reunions in the future.
'Trying to condense the last 26 years into 10 minutes or one night is obviously difficult," he said. "I'm looking at it, I guess, as a celebration."
Asked if he would return to hockey in another capacity, Messier acknowledged that was in the back of his mind.
"I feel I will be involved in hockey in some capacity when the time is right," he said. "This might seem like the final chapter, but I think there are more chapters to write."