2007 Hockey Hall of Fame -- Mark Messier bio
Messier very much his own man
By Scott BurnsideIt was an indication of the epic personality that is Mark Messier.
Last winter, when he mentioned, almost in passing, that he would like to one day be the general manager of the New York Rangers, it sparked debate and discussion around the hockey world.
Could Messier do it?
Would he do it?
Why would he do it?
Why wouldn't he do it?
And so on.
The tempest in an interview amounted to little, and Messier still exists like some Norse god somewhere between retirement and living legend. Not that debate and speculation about when, and in what form, Messier might return to the game have disappeared entirely.
On the eve of his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Messier told reporters he is busy with his two young children and various charitable endeavors, but that he expects he will return to the game at some point.
"I'm not actively pursing a position at this time, but I think at some point, it would be very gratifying and fulfilling to be part of a championship team from a different position. And I look forward to that," Messier said Wednesday.
Those who played alongside Messier or watched or coached the big center over his 25 NHL seasons are almost universal in their belief that whatever Messier chooses to do, it will be done well.
"I would think Mark could do whatever he wants to," said former Rangers GM Neil Smith, the man who brought Messier to Broadway in the fall of 1991.
Former teammate Glenn Healy was more blunt. Any team that doesn't take a run at Messier to add to their organization is "nuts," Healy said this week.
"There's just so much knowledge that he has," added Healy, a member of that seminal 1994 Rangers team that ended decades of futility with a dramatic Stanley Cup win in a seven-game series over the Vancouver Canucks.
It was Messier, Healy said, who kept the rancor between players and coach Mike Keenan from spoiling the Cup run.
"We had issues with Keenan, and Mark squashed them all," Healy said.
And it wasn't just the Rangers. Messier, who finished second all-time in the NHL in points (1,887) and games played (1,756), was a catalyst to the five Stanley Cups won by the Edmonton Oilers.
"Mark was the player that kept that Oiler team together," Healy said. "There was nobody that was too small that he couldn't make feel like they mattered."
Healy recalled how, after winning the 1994 Cup, it was Messier who insisted a longtime dressing room attendant who had been a fixture for decades get a Stanley Cup ring.
Emotional and volatile, Messier often would break down while talking to his teammates between periods. Healy recalled Messier trying to rally the Rangers one night in Hartford.
"So there he is, tears running down his face, and his tooth pops out of his head," Healy said. "I mean, is there anything better?"
So much of the Messier mythology surrounds the winning -- the six Stanley Cup rings, five in Edmonton, one in New York. The fact that he took an Oilers team that was without Wayne Gretzky and won an unexpected Cup in 1990, then guided the Rangers to their historic win four years later. But what is forgotten is that Messier also was revered when his teams didn't win.
Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon was an assistant coach in Vancouver when Messier joined the Canucks for three seasons late in his career. Hanlon described Messier's unwavering focus on winning and getting better, even when the future looked bleak for the team.
"There's two Mark Messiers. There's one that has unbelievable leadership skills when they were winning and that pushed them over the edge," Hanlon said. "Then, there was the other Mark Messier that kept his chin up and kept faith and never said die in a negative, losing environment.
"And I think it's a very difficult task to be a leader in a losing environment. And he excelled at it. And that's why, for me, I'd have to say I learned a lot from him."
The Canucks missed the playoffs all three seasons Messier was there.
"He never got discouraged. You couldn't discourage that guy," Hanlon added. "He was the most unbelievable person I've ever seen. He always came to the rink early. He just always thought success was around the corner for him and the hockey team."
After so many years, the Messier myth is almost greater than the man himself.
His guaranteeing victory in 1994, when the Rangers trailed the New Jersey Devils 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals and then scored three third-period goals to make good on the promise, is Ruthian in its grandness. That Messier would go on to score the winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals seemed preordained.
For many, Messier remains a unique, almost perfect, blend of heart, grit and skill.
Smith believes many elite, skilled players find it difficult to accept the notion of "team first" because developing those skills often means singular devotion. Similarly, those who place team above all else often sacrifice that personal flair, if they have it to begin with.
"Mark somehow got both those things," Smith said. "I think Mark is a very special individual. I think that probably he is, by far, most emblematic of the team concept. In other words, if you had to build a team to go out and win a Stanley Cup or a championship, this is the guy you automatically go to and say, 'OK, we've got our captain."
Smith acquired the Edmonton superstar in October 1991 for Bernie Nicholls, Louie DeBrusk and Steven Rice. Until that time, the Rangers had been a middle-of-the-road club five decades removed from their previous Stanley Cup.
"At that time, you're thinking the Rangers needed to have someone to come in that could come in and show them the way to winning," Smith said, "because the Rangers didn't know winning.
"I knew with Mark, he didn't accept losing."
Here's the funny thing. The one concern Smith had when he acquired Messier -- OK, maybe not a concern, but a niggling doubt -- was whether Messier, who would turn 31 during that season, had much left in the tank. That's what kept other teams from taking a run at him.
"But they didn't understand the type of athlete that he was," added Smith, who currently scouts for the Anaheim Ducks and does analysis for The NHL Network.
Messier would play until the end of the 2003-04 season.
"There wasn't any aspect of the job he didn't take the bull by the horns," Smith said. "Whether it was on the ice or in a team meeting or in organizing a dinner, in any situation, he was always ready to step up and be the guy. That meant organizing it or paying for it or making sure that it was done right."
Part of that was Messier's unique situation as a single man late into his career. When other players' focus and attention was fractured by family commitments, Messier remained unwaveringly focused on the game.
"Hockey was everything to him," Smith said.
If there's anything that might separate Messier, a two-time Hart Trophy winner as league MVP, from a quick return to the game in any kind of official capacity, it's that he finally is catching up with his peers.
Along with his two small children, a boy and a girl, he has a teenage son, Lyon, who currently is playing for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League.
Messier, 46, said he has embraced his chance to spend time with his family, as well as to continue doing charity work.
"Just being a dad. That's been the best part of retiring," Messier said.
Whatever the future holds for Messier, one imagines it will be a course charted by him and no one else.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
• Teams: Edmonton (1979-91), N.Y. Rangers (1991-97), Vancouver (1997-2000), Rangers (2000-04).
• Games: 1,756
• Goals: 694
• Assists: 1,193
• Points: 1,887
• PIMs: 1,910
• Considered by many to be one of sports' greatest leaders, Messier is second only to Wayne Gretzky in all-time scoring. He also won two Hart Trophies as the league's MVP.
I can remember him as an 18-year-old kid with the Cincinnati Stingers (WHA) back in 1978-79. I played with Mark on that team. I remember his first goal -- he dumped the puck in from center ice and changed and never saw it go into the net! To play with him then and then see what he has become is special. That 18-year-old became one of the top three or four players to ever play the game.
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