The game will miss these hockey greats

Updated: September 15, 2005, 3:27 PM ET
By John Buccigross | Special to ESPN.com

Four future Hall of Famers retired this month. I've had the honor to interview them all throughout the years. Since we have four to talk about, this column will go to overtime this week. We will bring this column back in three years, when this "Big Four" enter the Hockey Hall of Fame together.

First Period -- Mark Messier

I was among a throng of reporters interviewing Mark Messier two Februarys ago at the NHL All-Star Game in St. Paul, Minn. As I stood next to the hockey legend, what struck me first was Messier's height. He was shorter than I thought he would be. I towered over him. He's listed as 6-foot-2, but I don't think he is that tall.

Mark Messier
John says Mark Messier is the coolest hockey player of all time.

This happens a lot with "famous" people. We watch them on television or the movie screen. Their personality and star power combined with the camera angles used make actors, politicians and athletes seem 8 feet tall. Then, when we meet them in person, two things happen: The person is shorter than we anticipated, and as a result, their heads appear enormous. This happened at the same All-Star Weekend when Kurt Russell came to the ESPN Suite to push his movie, "Miracle." Russell is short and his head looked enormous. HEAD! MOOOVE! ("He'll cry himself to sleep on his huge pilla").

Messier's head didn't look enormous despite his surprising height. That's because he is one of, like, six white people who look cool with a shaved head. Even if he didn't, it wouldn't matter. Because Mark Messier is, without a doubt, the coolest hockey player of all time.

So it was cool to be so close to Mess while he talked hockey. But it wasn't overwhelming. Then, I asked him a question.

As Messier turned and looked to see who was asking the question, he smiled that smile when someone recognizes me as Melrose's "pool boy." As we made eye contact, and he continued to make eye contact as he listened and then answered in that slow, thoughtful, Messier fashion, I began to shrink. I'm a shade under 6-4 ("6-6 with the afro"). But, as Messier looked at me and talked, I felt like a dog watching a human chewing meat. And he was being friendly and chatty.

Imagine if I was a rookie winger and got beat getting back on defense, which led to a goal. Imagine coming back to the bench with those eyes looking at you. I then realized the impact of Messier and the power of personality. His eyes, smile, head, voice quality. Couple that with his talent, his nastiness, which sometimes went over the line, and you have a unique hockey legend. Six Stanley Cups. A man for all seasons.

Second Period -- Scott Stevens

Scott Stevens would set the intimidating tone before the game. In the hallway of NHL arenas.

That's where players from both teams work on their sticks -- taping, blow torching and getting them just right. The one-piece stick has taken a lot of that hockey ritual away. But in Stevens' heyday, he used that stick time to stalk the hallway without his shirt on, sticking out his hairy pecs and snorting like a bull. Scott Stevens was intimidating. That was his game.

Scott Stevens
There will be a huge void in New Jersey without Scott Stevens.

Some relief pitchers, like the Phillies' Billy Wagner, perform well because of the fear factor. Batters fear for their safety when they face Wagner. He's uncomfortable to deal with.

And that's how you win in sports. Make your opponent uncomfortable.

I imagine that's what it felt like playing against Scott Stevens. That fear factor and discomfort was a huge benefit to goaltender Martin Brodeur and the Devils. Stevens controlled the Devils' end of the ice with his presence and made it easier for everybody, Brodeur especially. Interviewing Stevens during two Stanley Cup finals was always very peculiar. He is a very quiet man, almost detached. As one asked a question, Stevens would intently listen, curious what was coming out of the reporter's mouth, wondering where he was going and how he would answer.

Stevens reminds me of Jack Lambert. He won't be involved in hockey much past the youth level. He'll chill and do something that interests him, not caring what other people think.

When thinking of Stevens, the highlights that scroll across one's mental hockey big screen are his crushing, Lambert-like, hits. The hit on Kozlov. Lindros. Kariya. Francis. Shane Willis.

Stevens didn't have the offensive talent of Orr, Bourque, Coffey, Niedermayer, or Thomas Kaberle, for that matter. But he had a talent none of those players had: immense toughness and extreme intimidation is a talent. Stevens never won a Norris Trophy because voters (writers) failed to recognize the Stevens' impact.

I get e-mails saying there should be a trophy for defensive defenseman. I disagree. Stevens should have won multiple Norris trophies because he had the biggest impact on the blue line.

The Devils won three Stanley Cups. There are many reasons why: Jacques Lemaire, Lou Lamoriello, David Conte, Claude Lemieux, Brodeur and Niedermayer. But the man who set the tone and made everyone's life easier with his quiet, fearless, intimidating presence was Scott Stevens. And the void now in New Jersey is colossal and won't be filled for decades. An era in New Jersey has ended.

Third Period -- Al MacInnis

Reggie Lemelin told me when he was with the Flames, he refused to play goalie during practice when Al MacInnis was shooting.

There was no way Lemelin was standing in front of a MacInnis blast when it didn't count (and goalie equipment had yet to reach the safety standards of today).

Al MacInnis
Al MacInnis had the sweetest -- and hardest -- shot in hockey.
Al MacInnis is the Nolan Ryan of hockey. No one shot it harder, or took the air out of more goaltenders' lungs, than Big Al. One of the most beautiful sights in hockey has been MacInnis' stick being pulled back and up, pointing to the sky and surging with the violent yet smooth downswing, striking the ice and puck like a lightning bolt, sending the puck through the chilled air. All future slap shots, from this day forward, will be measured against MacInnis'.

I interviewed MacInnis at the 2002 All-Star Game in South Florida. MacInnis is only 2½ years older than me, but I felt like I was talking to my dad. He's, like, you know, mature. Our society is getting more and more youthful. People are healthier, more active and living longer, better lives. But it seems like there are fewer and fewer people who are mature and centered, like most of our parents were growing up.

MacInnis would make a great coach, GM, or commissioner because he's a grownup. He communicates, has a good grasp of the language, an interesting speaking voice, and a presence. A Norris, a Conn Smythe, a Stanley Cup. MacInnis has had a rich hockey life. And it's not over.

Free marketing tip for the Blues -- plan an Al MacInnis night. Pick a night when the Cardinals aren't playing and Nelly isn't reading poetry at the local library.

Shut all the lights out and play a MacInnis career montage on the screen, including his All-Star hardest shot moments. When the video is over, turn the Jumbotron off and drape the arena in darkness. Then, play U2's "Until the End of the World," one of the greatest musical intros of all time. At the 30-second mark, turn on a spotlight on center ice, where Al MacInnis will be standing, wearing his home white Blues jersey and holding a stick. The crowd will go crazy.

Then, with just the spotlight still on Al, announce that he is going to unleash one more of his cannon shots into the darkness. Ask for quiet so Blues fans can hear the sound of a MacInnis slap shot just one last time. Al will have a wooden stick, providing that beautiful sound that has been robbed from the game with the synthetic, one-piece stick.

Al will circle the puck at center ice, building the drama and providing the momentum. The puck will shiver, Al's stick will rise in the silence, the fans will be on the edge of their eardrums, the stick will swing and the arena will shake. One more time.

Overtime -- Ron Francis

Ron Francis is second to Wayne Gretzky with 1,249 assists, and ranks among the league's all-time leaders with 1,731 games (third), 549 goals (19th) and 1,798 points (fourth).

Ron Francis
When Ron Francis left the Whale, hockey left Hartford.

Let's all read that sentence again 49 more times so we can at least begin to appreciate the legacy of Ron Francis.

Ronnie Franchise was simply a rock. The day he was traded from Hartford to Pittsburgh was the beginning of the end of hockey in Hartford. Essentially, it was the day the NHL music died in Connecticut. Francis was huge during the Penguins' playoff runs. In his first 45 playoff games with Pittsburgh (playoff games that led to two Stanley Cups), Francis had 44 points and was a plus-21. He won Lady Byngs, a Selke and a King Clancy. His name is on the Stanley Cup.

I talked to Ron backstage at the 2002 NHL Awards show, the year he won his Clancy. Francis has a Mike Wallace-like head of hair that he'll probably have until he's 92. Ron Francis is hockey's Hank Aaron. A sweet, simple man who just showed up and performed. Consistent. Competent. Classy. A face of a franchise if there ever was one.

What were the Whalers thinking?

The Mailbag

John,

With the departure of Scott Niedermayer, and the confirmed retirement of Scott Stevens, who do you see wearing the "C," for the Devils in October?

Elias, who is not going to play at the start of the season, wore an "A" last season. I would like to see John Madden or Sergei Brylin get some well-deserved credit. It would be interesting if Marty Brodeur was an alternate captain.

Thanks,
Joe
New Jersey

If it were my decision, I would name Brian Rafalski as captain. My alternate captains would be John Madden and Patrick Elias. Brian Gionta would wear the "A" for me until Elias gets healthy.

Hey John,
Just wanted to see if you know if the Devils are going to retire Scott's jersey? I am a diehard Devils fan and I was at Game 4 in '95 when they won the Cup. I am definitely ready to get this season going after so much time of no hockey. Especially being over here in Korea. It will be great to catch some games on AFN.

Thanks,
Sra Kevin J Williams
8 MXS Props Flt/Support Element
Kunsan AB, ROK

You can be sure no one will wear No. 4 again for the Devils. I would also retire Martin Brodeur's number. And yes, I would retire Scott Niedermayer's number, as well.

Hi John!

How do you like Pens line combination?
First line
LeClair-Crosby-Recchi
Second line
Malone-Beech-Palffy
Third line
Roy-Lemieux-Koltsov
Fourth line
Pirjeta-Eastwood-Fata (VandenBussche)

Please give comments or provide your vision of line combos in Pittsburgh.

Best Regards,
Sultan Zhakutov

God, I wish that was your real name. Well, Beech has been traded to Nashville since you wrote your e-mail, "Sultan." Let me take a crack at it:
First line
Lemieux-Crosby-Recchi
Second line
Palffy-Pirjeta-Malone
Third line
Koltsov-Kraft-LeClair
Fourth line
Roy-Fata-Surovy

As we see here, the Penguins are thin at center. I'm sure you'll see them trade for a veteran center between now and the deadline. Evgeni Malkin will center Palffy next season.

Hi John,

I know a lot has been said about Cammi Granato being cut from the USA Olympic Team, but I must say it's really hard for me to stomach seeing this happen to USA Hockey. I am from Downers Grove, Ill., Cammi and Tony's hometown, and I went to school at Downers Grove North High School, where Cammi attended. Her picture hangs in our "Hall of Fame" and it's truly an honor for me to have played for DGN hockey after a trailblazer like Cammi did a decade earlier. I know for a fact that she is a pioneer, the year after I graduated we had another female player on our varsity team; and this just goes to show how much the game has changed to include women in the greatest sport on earth. What Ben Smith and USA Hockey did is such an outrage, and more needs to be said about this because it's sadly flying under the radar on the overall sports scene.

Sincerely,
David Budimir
Downers Grove, Ill.

John,

I'm sure you'll get lots of stick for including a lot of very young stars on your shootout list, but you did forget one guy who has never missed a penalty shot in his career, Joe Sakic! Super Joe does it year in and year out, and there isn't anyone on your list who I would take over him.

Tim Farnham
Houston, Texas

Ray Bourque said as an analyst on NHL 2Night three years ago that Joe Sakic had the best wrist shot he's ever seen. Between that statement and your e-mail, Tim, I'll put Joe on the list.

John,

With all the talk about Team USA and great American players of the past setting the standard for the future stars, I would like to give you a name, and hear your thoughts. He is my favorite hockey player of all time and one of the nicest, most genuinely giving people I've ever had the opportunity to meet. He was a quiet leader with amazing vision and scoring touch. His career got cut short because of concussion problems and although he is in the Hall of Fame, I always thought he never got the credit from the hockey public that he deserves. He is on my list of the 10 best players of all time. Pat LaFontaine.

Thanks for your thoughts John,
Brad
Jupiter, Fla.

Last winter I had the chance to play some hockey with LaFontaine and Denis Leary. I played on LaFontaine's team and I wrote this about the experience:

We played for about two hours, nonstop. Best-of-five games, four-on-four hockey with the nets placed on the blue lines for backyard-rink dimensions.

Leary plays defense for The Rippers, shoots right-handed, moves well, and takes the game very seriously. He is not a comedian on the ice. He plays to win. LaFontaine is, in a word, breathtaking. The way he moves and stickhandles is simply stupid. Talent on loan from God.

LaFontaine scored 468 goals in just 865 NHL games, and from what I saw, even at half speed and against a bunch of plumbers, there cannot be a more talented hockey player ever created. If he had Mario Lemieux's size, he would have put up the same numbers as No. 66. LaFontaine is 6 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter and was still able to score 468 goals. I'll never skate with a greater talent.

John,

Thanks for the heads-up about Guster. Love it! Got any more recommendations?

Mike Marino
Nashville, Tenn.

The CD I can't get out of my CD player right now is Stereophonics' new one, "Language Sex Violence Other." "Dakota" is the kind of song I will play close to 1,000 times this year and never get tired of until the day I die. The CD is filled with hockey "pump-up" songs.

John,
I will be giving up my season tickets after this season. The Bruins screwed me and didn't lower my seat $19, but are offering $10 seats. Basically, I'm going to have to put up with every jackass going to school at BU talking on their cell phones and waving to each other while I don't get to see my game. Thankfully, the Bruins will have a full house eventually, but I won't be sitting in 307 after this season.

Your favorite Gal from Beantown (or as we like to call it Titletown),
Heather Higgins

Hi John,

In regards to the Lemieux vs. Gretzky debate, here are some points to keep in mind:

1. From 1986 on, when both players were in their prime, Gretzky never won the scoring title in any season Lemieux played in 60-plus games.

2. When Lemieux played 60-plus games, he not only won the scoring title, but he also usually by a wide margin.

3. Lemieux averaged more points per game and goals per game than Gretzky over their careers. If that has changed, it has due to the last couple seasons Lemieux has played.

4. Lemieux played on one of the worse teams in the NHL during his first five seasons, while Gretzky played on one of the best of all time.

5. While Gretzky was able to pass to Jari Kurri, Lemieux was forced to pass to Terry Ruskowski, Warren Young and Rob Brown.

6. In the early-mid 90s, when clutching and grabbing became more commonplace in the league, Lemieux was still a 50-plus goal scorer.

Just something to keep in mind when you hail Gretz as the hands-down greatest ever. Don't disrespect Mario Lemieux by limiting him to the best athlete in Pittsburgh history. He is the best in NHL history!

Brandon Dunn
Chandler, Arizona

Hey John,

I was having a conversation with a fellow hockey teammate of mine (adult league), and we were sorta gettin' excited about the NHL season. But at one point, we realized & the new NHL season is one month away and they have done NOTHING to let people know! Shouldn't the NHL be running commercials right now? Shouldn't teams be running commercials right now? Shouldn't hockey be trying to bring people IN?! Is there something on the way? Or does the NHL even HAVE a plan?

Mike Wittmers
San Jose, Calif.

No one is prepared for the season. The NHL offices are still reeling from the lockout and there is little done in terms of budgets. I did see a New Jersey billboard on the New Jersey turnpike this past week. Tickets are selling pretty well, but in places like Philadelphia, corporate dollars, suites and club seating are not flowing and moving. The NHL and its teams still have to be concerned about the momentum and marketing on the sport. I think they believe once the puck drops, everything will take care of itself. Hopefully, they'll be right. But the NHL has been busy. CBA, new TV deal with OLN, the XM Satellite Radio deal and launching the season has made for a hectic late summer. I would have liked to have seen a promo, a commercial, somewhere. How hard is that?

John,

After reading your latest mailbag, it is even more evident that you couldn't be more wrong with your stance on fighting. You told one reader that if someone "took liberties" with a star player they would get penalized. Are you referring to the 20 percent of the time that the referee actually sees the infraction and makes the call? Did you not see the careers of Ulf, Dale Hunter, etc.?

Speaking of Ulf, let's discuss your position if Cam Neely was still playing. Ulf cross-checks Cam in the back. No call per usual. Cam eventually losses it and starts pummeling Ulf with his fists who of course, immediately turtles. Ulf plays the next shift. Cam thrown out of the game. This is seriously what you want?

Peter Johnson
Littleton, Mass.

I believe every cross-checking penalty should be a major. Automatic five minutes. These instances of taking liberties should be punished severely. The competition committee, which will be comprised of some players, can let the league know what the unethical offenses are, and those penalties will become much harsher.

John,

I was reading your update on Shjon Podein coming to play in Japan and was excited to hear that. I am currently stationed in Southern Japan (Iwakuni) and have experienced first hand what it is like to play hockey over here. It has been a great experience to play this wonderful game in a different country. I would like to wish Shjon the best of luck while playing in Japan, and I know he will have a lot of fun playing over here. Thanks for this update and I look forward to reading more of your articles.

Ed Tagle
Iwakuni, Japan

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.

John Buccigross | email

SportsCenter anchor
John Buccigross joined ESPN as an anchor in October 1996. He currently can be seen as an anchor on "SportsCenter." Buccigross frequently contributes to ESPN.com during the season.