Messier's 1-2 punch just like Mr. Hockey's
No story is ever great without a compelling villain. Every Shane needs a Jack Palance. Every James Bond a Goldfinger. Every Peter Pan a Captain Hook.
The amazing thing about Mark Messier was, he could be both.
As news of Messier's retirement became official Monday, ex-Calgary Flame Jamie Hislop remembered seeing him come in to Cincinnati of the WHA at age 17.
"He played only 40 games or so, and scored one goal, I think. But you could just tell. He was already physically dominant. Great skater. Big shot. And mean. Even then, he didn't take anything from anybody. He set the ground rules early.
"I played with Mark at 17, and against Gordie Howe in the twilight of his career. When you look at them, and the way they were able to beat you so many ways, there's a lot of similarities between the two."
Messier never did break Howe's record of 1,767 NHL games played. But he earned a distinction no one else could claim:
The most complete post-Gordie player.
"Oh, I'd say so," Doug Barkley said. As a Detroit teammate of Howe's and later the Calgary Flames' radio color man during Messier's halcyon days as an Edmonton Oiler, he's uniquely qualified to compare the two men.
"Messier was a star all of his career, like Gordie. He had the talent, like Gordie, and the physical meanness, too. You carve out your territory in this game, and both Gordie and Messier did that better than anybody. People learned, and quickly, not to mess with either one of them, which is what gave them so much room in the latter stages of their careers. They had earned that type of respect.
"Gordie was the best all-around player I ever saw. But since then, Messier, yeah. Can't think of anybody else who comes close."
For a new generation of hockey fans, the ones weaned on 30 teams and third jerseys, Mark Messier served the function of grand old man of the game, a throwback to another era that dads spoke of in hushed, almost reverential tones.
Poor them. They missed out on all the fun.
If Messier's greatest achievement was arguably ending the decades-long suffering of New York Rangers fans in 1994, his peak years were spent as sidekick to Wayne Gretzky, up north. In those seasons, he was an unrivaled combination of fury, finesse and power.
Never doubt that Messier was every bit as fundamental to the success of that '80s Edmonton Oiler dynasty as No. 99 himself. When The Great One needed a break from the strain of being The Man, Messier took over. Scoring the big goal, making the big hit, saying the right thing in the room.
|“||Messier was a star all of his career, like Gordie. He had the talent, like Gordie, and the physical meanness, too. You carve out your territory in this game, and both Gordie and Messier did that better than anybody. ”|
|— Doug Barkley, former teammate of Gordie Howe and Flames radio color man|
A couple of years ago, retired Oiler defenseman Lee Fogolin recalled perhaps his defining Messier moment from 1984, the year Edmonton claimed its first Stanley Cup title by beating the arch-rival and four-time champion New York Islanders.
"Mark picked the puck up inside our zone and scored a spectacular goal in a tight game," he reminisced. "He just undressed Denis Potvin, left him standing there, before beating Billy Smith.
"Now the Islanders were a very resilient team. You don't win four straight Stanley Cups by having any quit in you, but seeing Mark do what he did to Denis -- not just some marginal defenseman, mind you, but one of the best to ever play the game -- really took the wind out of their sails. You could tell. They were just deflated. They sagged.
"I think it was one of the turning points of that series and a defining moment in the building of that great team."
But there was so much more there than mere artistry. If Gretzky ran the string section of the orchestra, Messier handled percussion.
Oilers architect Glen Sather had, after all, drafted Messier after watching him kick the stuffing out of Dennis Sobchuk in a fight. He once broke Calgary defenseman Jamie Macoun's jaw with a sucker punch.
The destruction he could wreak was perhaps never better exhibited than in Game 7 of the 1984 series against the rival Flames.
That night, Messier proved to be a one-man war of attrition, knocking three Calgary players out of action during the decisive third period. Paul Reinhart had long since been stretchered off; Mike Eaves lay crumpled like a discarded cigarette pack in a corner after being run over ("It was as if he got hit by a bus," recalled Oilers goaltender Grant Fuhr. "There were tire tracks running up and down his back."); and Al MacInnis exited early after being cut down by a knee injury. All courtesy of one man.
Carnage. Sheer carnage. Messier carnage.
"That Messier!" Flames coach Badger Bob Johnson would growl after that game. "That Messier! He knocked three of our guys out of the game! Three! That was " He stammered. "That was " He glowered. "That was " He paced the hallway, apparently enraged at the injustice of it all. "That was " His face lapsed into a look above appreciation, arguably approaching awe. "Amazing!"
If achievement spurred Messier on during his peak years, his appetite for the game itself kept him going long after his contemporaries had taken their final bow. And now he, the last one left, has taken his last curtain call, too.
"Mark just loved the game," former Oilers teammate Dave Hunter said. "You know, watching him in New York the last few years, whenever he'd score a goal or set up a teammate, you'd see that smile. That's the same smile, the big grin he had 20 years ago, when we started out in Edmonton. The exact smile. I remember it well.
"That tells me this is a guy not playing for money or for records or for anything over than the sheer enjoyment of being on the ice."
Part of the enjoyment was the physical aspect. He once knocked Perry Berezan out of a playoff game. Said Berezan: "And he did everything you're supposed to. Clean hit. Knocked me out, cold. I played for his dad Doug. They had the same stare. The apple didn't fall too far from the tree there. When Doug was [ticked] off, you knew you'd better not blink in that dressing room. Same thing with Mark. You knew he was behind you 100 percent, but that you'd better not screw up, either."
Added Hunter: "Mark could burn you with his speed, bop you with his stick or drop the gloves and beat you with his fists. Just like Gordie Howe. I ask you: Where do you find another player like that?"
Answer: You don't.
Not then. Not now. Not since Mr. Hockey.
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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