Monday

Mark Messier

Old time fans will unequivocally insist the greatest player of all time is Gordie Howe. Not Gretzky. Not Lemieux. Not Bobby Orr. The problem for several recent eras of fans is we never saw "Mr. Hockey." The primitive video that is archived is from late in his career. We never got to see the man who could do it all - score, pass, skate, hit, and fight. With the puck he could be as beautiful as any player from any generation. Without the puck he could be as robust and as happily nasty.

No, modern fans did not get to see that. But we were blessed to see the closest incarnation since: Mark Messier.

Messier played the game in Howe's image. Both embodied hockey in its most passionate form -- competing hard, winning at all costs and exhibiting a mean streak that only added to effectiveness. But that passion and the physical prowess never overshadowed the raw skill sets of either - the explosive speed, the uncanny creativity, the constant threat to score. Messier was very much Gordie Howe 2.0 - with Rocket Richard's piercing eyes thrown in.

While the NHL game has changed significantly on a few occasions in the league's storied history, the definition of the "ideal" hockey player never has. Gordie Howe embodied that description for the longest time. Mark Messier is the closest player to join "Mr. Hockey" as an equal in hockey's grand history.

What makes it all the more amazing is the fact that Messier was very much a long shot to accomplish anything in the NHL.

Messier was the definition of a "coach's project" when he started out. He had a few things going for him though. He was as strong as an ox and wasn't afraid to show it; he had blazing speed; and he had Glen Sather's guidance.

Mark was only 17 when he turned pro with Indianapolis of the World Hockey Association. He split 52 games between Indianapolis and Cincinnati in his rookie year, and was far from sensational. In fact he only scored one goal. There was little to suggest he would go on to become the only man named to the NHL's first all star team at two different positions, become the only man to captain two franchises to Stanley Cup championships, or become the man heralded as the greatest leader in not only hockey but in all of professional sports.

When the WHA merged with NHL, Messier was still eligible for the entry draft, and that's when Edmonton Oiler GM Glen Sather drafted the hometown boy in the second round (1979). Under Sather's guidance and confidence, Messier became a monster.

He scored a respectable 33 points as an 18 year old in his first year in the NHL, and followed that up by a 63 point campaign. But it was in 1981-82, Messier blossomed into a 50 goal scorer and the Oilers exploded into an NHL powerhouse.

Messier played under the shadow of Wayne Gretzky for many years, but one can argue that the Oilers didn't reach the top until Messier put them there. With Gretzky's wizardry and offensive firepower and Messier's physical dominance and leadership, the Oilers reached the Stanley Cup final in 1983. However Messier's shoulder was quickly injured limiting his effectiveness. The Oilers were soon blown away by the dynasty New York Islanders.

The next year the Oilers returned to the finals, and again faced the Isles. This time Messier was healthy, and the Oilers gained their first Stanley Cup and at the same time ended the Isle's four year reign as champions. In the pivotal game 3 of the series, it was Messier's spectacular goal that sparked to Oilers and they never looked back. Messier was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoffs most valuable player.

Gretzky and Messier and the Oilers would enjoy their own dynasty, winning 3 more Cups. After Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles in 1988, Messier was named Oilers captain. He enjoyed his most productive season in 1989-90, scoring 129 points, and winning the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP. He would then lead the Oilers to a somewhat surprising 5th Stanley Cup in 7 years. Surprising only because Gretzky had left only 2 years earlier.

However, Messier's days in Edmonton were numbered, just like Gretzky ahead of him. Changing economics forced the Oilers to dismantle perhaps the greatest team of all time. At the start of the 1991-92 season Messier became known as "the Messiah" as he was traded to the New York Rangers. His leadership qualities and all around play inspired the Rangers to acquire him to fulfill a mission: to bring the Stanley Cup back to Manhattan for the first time since 1940. In doing so he became Manhattan's favorite son. Remembered as much as a Ranger as he was an Oiler, he is immortalized in sporting history like very few hockey players before him.

Even though Messier's career, and the fortunes of the Canucks, who he joined in 1997 and the Rangers, who he rejoined in 2000, would slide into decline, his legendary status would only grow with Howe-like longevity.

His stellar career that featured 694 goals, 1,193 assists and 1,887 points in 1,756 games. He surpassed Gordie Howe's once untouchable career scoring feats, ending his career as the NHL's second highest scorer all time behind his buddy Wayne Gretzky. Thanks in large part to the NHL lockout of 2004-05, Messier fell one season shy of equaling Howe's record of 26 seasons played, and finished just 11 games behind on the games played list.

3 comments:

Anonymous,  5:30 PM  

Frankly, I'm pleasantly surprised to find an almost unbiasedly neutral article on Mark Messier, by a Canuck fan. Messier was feared and respected league-wide for his achievement, but in Vancouver, he's been almost forever vilified in Vancouver for stealing the Stanley Cup in 1994, and then Trevor Linden's captaincy in 1997.

Messier was one of the great leaders of sports, yes. He was probably the most complete players of all time, but I wouldn't put him above Gretzky or Beliveau, as the greatest captain of all time. Maybe, it's because I'm biased, being a Canuck fan myself (and an avid Messier-hater). But Gretzky and Beliveau knew how to unite their team, inspire them, and really get them involved. They motivated their teammates to be the best they could be.

Messier drove his teammates hard, and helped them conquer new territory. It worked in New York, but it really backfired in Vancouver. So that should be a pretty heavy strike against him on the leadership note (call me biased, but he's certainly by far the worst captain on the Canucks in franchise history). I say Gretzky is the sport's greatest leader.

Anonymous,  8:21 AM  

Messier Rules Gretzky Does Too Go Oilers

Anonymous,  2:16 PM  

Stupid Canucks expected a 35 year old to carry the team.

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