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Beyond the promise, Messier a true leader in all areas

11/17/2004

For many, the notion of Mark Messier, the consummate leader, begins and ends with his bold guarantee of victory in Game 6 of the 1994 Eastern Conference final.

It was the stuff of legend and instantly placed the New York Rangers captain in the rare company of sports icons Joe Namath and Muhammad Ali, who spun empty promises into timeless measures of greatness.

Messier, of course, scored three third-period goals to erase an early 2-0 New Jersey lead in Game 6 to force a seventh game, which the Rangers won in double OT en route to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years.

He scored the Cup-winning goal in the seventh game against Vancouver to put an exclamation point on one of the most storied championship runs in NHL history.

But Messier's guarantee and his subsequent delivery of the goods merely made good copy. It didn't make him a great leader, but rather cemented his place in hockey history as the game's greatest captain ever.

Critics will suggest Messier's leadership capabilities waned post-1994. True, his teams in Vancouver and then during his high-profile return to New York failed to qualify for the playoffs from 1997-98 through 2004. But given his accomplishments and the testimonials of teammates and coaches, the Moose's entire body of work as a leader and performer is as impressive as the powerful beast he was affectionately named after.

Because the 1994 Cup run shines so brightly, many forget Messier had earlier on established himself as a player whom others rallied around.

In 1984, when Edmonton won its first Cup, Messier, not Wayne Gretzky, earned playoff MVP honors.

When Gretzky was shipped to Los Angeles in 1988, the Oilers were expected to fade into oblivion. Two years later Messier, wearing the "C", hoisted the Cup again. After finishing second behind Gretzky in scoring, the 29-year-old won his first Hart Trophy.

Messier won another Hart in 1992 after moving to New York, where he was instantly honored with the captaincy. He was an MVP finalist again the year after the Rangers ended their Cup drought.

The first man to captain two teams to championships is perhaps the finest two-way player ever. While he joined his Edmonton teammates in racking up impressive numbers (he is No. 2 only to Gretzky, having passed Gordie Howe in the all-time points list in 2003), Messier was always a presence at both ends of the ice.

He was suspended four times, including a 10-game sentence in 1984-85 for cracking Jamie Macoun's cheekbone in a fight he initiated.

Former NHL coach Jacques Demers said that once Messier got going it was nearly impossible to stop him and the late Bob Johnson, who coached in Calgary, likened Messier to NFL great Jim Brown. "He's a bull with finesse," Johnson said.

His imposing visage coupled with a fearsome "look" was intimidating to opposing players, officials and teammates.

He was known to rearrange the Rangers dressing room so that no one could escape his menacing glare, but also knew that with captaincy came a greater responsibility than chewing out the rookies and offering up a few morsels for the media.

Messier was known as the ultimate leader by example.

It was Messier who visited New York firefighters involved in the 9/11 rescue effort, donning their gear so he'd have a sense of what they faced that day. Afterwards, he refused to discuss the visit with reporters.

There were dozens of unrecorded visits to hospitals, especially children's units, and Messier was always willing to give time and money to causes.

Longtime teammate Adam Graves, a gentleman and true leader himself, revered Messier. Tony Amonte called him the best hockey captain ever.

When Messier returned to New York after a three-year stint in Vancouver, Ranger captain Brian Leetch showed up at the press conference with Messier's jersey with his trademark No. 11 on the back and the signature "C" on the front.

The move brought Messier to tears.

"He would be our leader regardless of what's on his shirt,"

Leetch said. Enough said.

The Hockey News Material from The Hockey News.
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