FULLTILT LEGENDS: MARK MESSIER

Mission Complete! Messier ends the curse in 1994 (NYDN)

Mission Complete! Messier ends the curse in 1994 (NYDN)

To say Mark Messier is a legend would be a gross understatement. Simply put, the man is an immortal. 6 Stanley Cup Championships, 2 Hart Trophies, a Conn Smythe Trophy, 2nd leading all time scorer in NHL history. If you stopped there it would be enough, but it continues. NHL & WHA Hall of Famer & the only player to Captain two different organizations to win the Stanley Cup.

Heck, his leadership is so legendry he has an award named after him – the Mark Messier Leadership Award! There were many moments throughout his career where one could say Messier was a legend. To pinpoint one in particular would neglect dozens of others. Let’s take a look back at some moments that gave legendary status to “The Captain”.

STRIKING OIL

The high flying Edmonton Oilers were swept in the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals by the New York Islanders for their fourth straight Stanley Cup Championship. The following season, the Oilers were on a mission. Yes, they still led the world in scoring. Yes, they were still brash, flash & dash. And yes, they still pushed the pace of a game like no other team ever could.

Yet, when the playoffs came around and team defense tightened up, getting up to the challenge. As fate would have it, they would meet up again with the Islanders in the Final. The teams split the first two games in New York and with the next 3 games in Edmonton (the league was playing a 2-3-2 format at the time) it was imperative that the Oilers do what they could to avoid a return trip to Nassau Coliseum.

 

In Game 3, with the Oilers trailing by a goal, Messier orchestrated a breathtaking end to end rush culminating with a shot that eluded Islanders goalie Billy Smith. It was a play that became a signature mark of the series. The Oilers went on to victory in Game 3 and took the Final in 5 games to win their first of 4 Stanley Cups in the Wayne Gretzky years. Messier would be named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as he registered 26 points (8g, 18a) in 19 games.

Gretzky and Messier raise the Cup for the 4th time (David E. Klutho/SI)

Gretzky and Messier raise the Cup for the 4th time (David E. Klutho/SI)

WINNING WITHOUT WAYNE

Another Messier moment came during the 1990 playoffs. Gretzky had been traded to Los Angeles and Messier was named his successor as Captain of the Oilers. In a twist of irony, the Kings & Oilers faced each other in the playoffs in the second round. The Oilers dominated the Kings and swept them 4-0 to advance to the Conference finals vs. the Chicago Blackhawks.

After splitting the first two games in Edmonton, the Blackhawks dominated the Oilers on home ice in Game 3 winning easily 5-1. However, in Game 4 Messier was a force. He hit everything in sight. He scored two goals, had two assists and imposed his will on the Blackhawks enroute to a 4-1 series tying victory.

The Blackhawks didn’t have an answer for the play of Messier in that game or the next 2 either. The Oilers edged the Blackhawks in Game 5 in Edmonton 4-3 and the routed the ‘Hawks in Game 6 in Chicago, 8-4, a victory that put the Oilers back into the Final for the 6th time in franchise history and the 6th time in 8 seasons.

Adam Graves over anxiously reached for the Cup held by Messier (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Adam Graves over anxiously reached for the Cup held by Messier (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

 

The Oilers would go on to defeat the Boston Bruins in 5 games to capture their 5th title. Even though Messier tied Craig Simpson for the point scoring lead in the playoffs with 31 (9g, 22a), goalie Bill Ranford was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP. Messier though had done what many thought wasn’t possible. He led the Gretzky-less Oilers to a Stanley Cup Championship.

SLAYING THE CURSE

Messier would eventually force a trade to the New York Rangers at the start of the 1991-92 season and instantly transformed the Rangers into Stanley Cup contenders. The Rangers led by the new Captain would go on to win the President’s Trophy as the top team in the regular season.

Messier had a spectacular 1st season for the Blueshirts as he recorded 107 pts (35g, 72a) enroute to winning the Hart Trophy as league MVP. The Rangers were heavy favorites to win The Cup entering the playoffs but were upset in the 2nd round by Mario Lemieux & the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The 1992-93 season was not kind to either Messier or the Rangers as injuries and misfortune struck. There was a power struggle between head coach Roger Neilson & Messier over how the team should play. Messier preferred a more up-tempo game while Neilson wanted a more opportunistic defensive approach. Neilson would lose the battle and his job but it didn’t change the results. The Rangers became the 1st team to ever go from winning the President’s trophy one year to not making the playoffs the following season.

Messier’s reputation took a severe hit that year. Almost immediately after the season ended, rumors surfaced that Messier – citing his age, amount of contract and coming off a poor season – might be left unprotected in the upcoming expansion draft. The rumors proved to be false and when the Rangers hired Mike Keenan it was firmly established that Messier wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Mike Keenan behind the NYR bench 1994 (NHL)

Mike Keenan behind the NYR bench 1994 (NHL)

 

Keenan played the up-tempo pressure game that Messier thrived on. The Rangers started slowly in October going 7-5-1 but then dominated the league the rest of the season finishing with a record of 52-24-8 for 112 points and capturing their 2nd President’s trophy in 3 years.

After blowing past the Islanders & Capitals in the first 2 rounds, the Rangers faced the New Jersey Devils in the Conference Finals. The teams exchanged wins throughout the first 4 games. Reportedly during this time, rumors had surfaced that Keenan was ready to bolt to the Detroit Red Wings after the season to become the GM/Coach.

Legend has it that Messier went into Keenan’s office the morning of Game 5 to discuss some questionable coaching moves he had made during Game 4. Some of those moves included benching Messier, Leetch & Kovalev and pulling Richter from the game. Also it has been rumored that Keenan had basically stopped coaching as players were calling out their own shifts.

Messier backs his talk with a hat-trick in game 6! (SI)

Messier backs his talk with a hat-trick in game 6! (SI)

 

After emerging from Keenan’s office, Messier was asked by teammates what happened and he responded by saying that the situation was handled and it won’t happen again. In Game 5 at MSG, the Devils dominated the Rangers putting New York on the brink of elimination. On the morning of Game 6, the hockey universe awoke to Messier guaranteeing victory.

 

Early on it did not look good for the Rangers as the Devils came out flying and led 2-0. Mike Richter stood on his head keeping the Rangers in the game. Kovalev would score the first Ranger goal and the comeback was on. Messier would score a natural hat trick as the Rangers would even the series at 3. The Rangers would win dramatically in double OT in Game 7 to advance to Final against the Vancouver Canucks.

The Rangers and Messier were where he promised they would be when he arrived in New York in the fall of 1991. The Canucks put up more of a fight than many suspected they would and the series went to 7 games.

As fate would have it, Messier scored the Game Winning goal – further cementing his legendary status – in the Rangers 3-2 win. The Curse was over!

ZERO SECONDS (Steiner Sports)

ZERO SECONDS (Steiner Sports)

There are two lasting images of Messier from this series. The first is Messier jumping up & down like a little kid after Craig MacTavish won the final faceoff in the Rangers defensive end to seal the victory.

Mark Messier: The Slayer of Curses (AP)

Mark Messier: The Slayer of Curses (AP)

The second one is of Messier laughing maniacally after Commissioner Gary Bettman handed him The Cup. With that Cup win, Messier became the first player to Captain 2 different teams to championships and it was his 6th title overall.

TWILIGHT YEARS

His remaining playing years after that would not see much success. The Rangers did reunite Messier & Gretzky and enjoyed a memorable run to the Conference Finals in 1997 only to be eliminated by the Flyers, led by the Legion of Doom line (Eric Lindros, John LeClair & Mikael Renberg).

After the 1997 season, Messier became embroiled in a nasty contract spate with MSG President Dave Checketts, who uttered the phrase “How much longer do we have to pay for that Cup?”

Feeling slighted & disrespected, Messier signed a 5 year deal with the Vancouver Canucks. Injuries, poor play & a lack of talent were the main reasons in Vancouver that the Canucks floundered. The Canucks bought out the final 2 years of his contract and Messier was once again a free agent.

ADDING TO HIS LEGACY

 

Messier returned to the Rangers – ceremoniously burying the hatchet with Checketts at the press conference, and reassumed the Captaincy from Brian Leetch. However, the Rangers were in a down period of rebuilding and the team missed the playoffs all 3 years.

Messier (l) and Checketts (r) burying the hatchet (MSG)

Messier (l) and Checketts (r) burying the hatchet (MSG)

 

Messier would play his last game against the Buffalo Sabres in April 2004. True to form & living up to his flair for the dramatic he scored a goal. The Rangers would go on to lose the game 4-3.

Leading up to the game he had refused to acknowledge that it would be his last game. Since it had been so widely expected, every time he touched the puck the crowd would roar. After the game was over, in a sign of respect, both the Sabres & Rangers stayed on the ice and tapped the sticks on the ice. Messier would take several laps around the ice waving, bowing and saying “Thank you.” to the fans. In September of 2005, he officially announced his retirement. As expected, he was enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in November 2007 in his 1st year of eligibility.

Messier takes a bow in his last game (Getty)

Messier takes a bow in his last game (Getty)

On January 12, 2006, the Rangers retired his #11 in an emotional ceremony which Mike Richter joked was “sponsored by Kleenex”. On February 27, 2007 the Oilers also retired his #11.

LIFE AFTER PLAYING

 

In August of 2009, Messier returned to the NHL & the Rangers acting as special assistant to the President & GM Glen Sather. In June 2013, he was a finalist for the head coaching position of the Rangers but lost out to Alain Vigneault.

At that point he left the Rangers to pursue other interests. In his retirement from the game, Messier has managed to stay relevant. He has been on several broadcasts as a guest commentator, served briefly as a consultant for the Edmonton Oilers and he even ran in the New York Marathon.

Known for giving his fair share of bumps and bruises on the ice, off of it he spearheads the Messier Project. In conjunction with Bauer, their goal is to design a better hockey helmet to limit and prevent concussions.

The Messier Project (NHL)

The Messier Project (Getty)

 

Since 2013 he has also been involved with a new plan to redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, NY. It’s the world’s largest indoor ice center called the Kingsbridge National Ice Center.

Mark Messier has made and continues to make a lasting impact on the game of hockey. He is an icon in Edmonton and many hockey circles. In NY he is revered a hockey god! Messier is truly a legend – on and off the ice.

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