November 08, 2007

Mark Messier: My Villain, My Hero

I hated Mark Messier at times. I loved him at other times. And now that his career has ended, I still have mixed emotions about #11. You can read my original Mark Messier biography here. What follows below are some personal memories of "the Moose."

In the 1980s I loved to watch Mark Messier and the Edmonton Oilers. The speed, the power, the determination - Even in the early days I had an inkling that Messier may be the closest comparable player to Gordie Howe, a legend I never really saw play.

There wasn't anything Messier couldn't do. Physically he dominated like so few before. He skated like the wind. And his hands were at times so soft he could make plays and score goals. At other times his hands were like boulders of rock, jack hammering away in numerous fights in the Battle of Alberta.

But I also saw Messier as one of the dirtiest players, frequently using his elbows and stick to intimidate. Unlike Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier could also be accused of floating through a lot of meaningless regular season games. But rest assured when the team needed him, he showed up, especially in the playoffs as proved by his 5 Stanley Cups in Edmonton.

Then he went off to New York, out of the shadows of Gretzky's Oilers. He took Manhattan by storm, his ego grew and he became less likable, for me anyways. To make matters worse, he led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup in 1994, knocking off my Vancouver Canucks. The image of that wide-grinned Messier ripping the Cup out of Gary Bettman's hands and hoisting in front of the Madison Square Gardens' faithful pains me as much today as it did back then.

An interesting thing happened that night. With the Stanley Cup delivered, Messier was no longer an Oiler forever. he was Manhattan's Messiah, one of the most heralded sports figures in America's biggest marketplace. Unlike any of his teammates, Messier may be better remembered outside of Edmonton than wearing the blue and orange, despite Edmonton's attempts to reclaim their hometown hero.

Messier's play slipped considerably after that Cup win. The Rangers let him go and god forbid my Canucks lured him away as the highest bidder. This wasn't the same Mark Messier playing as a Canuck. The former Canuck killer was now a disinterested perimeter player, willing to talk big but not willing to lead by example, as he always did. No, in Vancouver he was a locker room cancer, not a leader. History will likely sweep that painful period under the rug. No wants to remember the washed up Messier that hung on way too long.

In fact I refuse to believe Messier is the greatest leader in hockey history. I'll save that for Steve Yzerman or Bobby Clarke, or Wayne Gretzky, Messier's leader in Edmonton.

How I do want to remember Mark Messier though is as a member of Team Canada, where he truly is a legend, especially in the Canada Cup tournaments.

he three time Canada Cup champion was instrumental in both the 1984 and 1987 Canadian victories. He took a back seat to the likes of Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey, but his fearless play and win at all costs attitude intimidated the Russians and all other nations.

In 1984 the Soviets sent a more physical lineup, led by Vladimir Kovin. It was Messier who delivered the message right back at the Soviets, rearranging Kovin's face in a famous (or maybe it should be infamous) stick carving incident.

In 1987 Messier was most often matched up against the famed Soviet Green Unit - the KLM Line with Krutov, Larionov and Makarov. Messier shutdown Larionov in particular. By doing so, he showed his teammates that he was willing to sacrifice goals and assists for the good of the team. Everyone on Team Canada noticed, and even superstars like Dale Hawerchuk and Michel Goulet gladly accepted lesser roles.

"Mark was very instrumental in bringing that group together," said Canadian head coach Mike Keenan.

"How Mark impacted his team was incredible," he added. In Game Two in 1987, we were tied after regulation. He came in and just jacked the room right up. It was really an incredible experience. And the team stayed jacked up, even more so for Game Three. Honest to God, you could feel the energy in the room, like I've never experienced in any situation before or after. The energy was so high, it was like they were walking on air after he spoke."

1991 was a tough tournament for Mess personally. Due to injuries, he missed the entire training camp and was expected not to play at all. Then, on the last day of camp, he limped in and was named to the team. He played a quiet and largely ineffective role, but when the team needed him would be ready to come through.

And the team did need him. Wayne Gretzky, clearly the tournament's best player, was crunched from behind by USA's Gary Suter, rendering him unable to play in what proved to be the decisive game. The loss of The Great One could have proved deadly for Team Canada, but Mark Messier, along with Paul Coffey, really took the bull by the horns and kept the team confident and focused. Messier himself scored the all important goal in the third period of Game One to calm the team down, then opened the scoring in Game Two. Despite his injuries, Messier was dominant when the time came.

Mark Messier is one of the league's all time greatest players, and one of the tournament's all time greatest performers. If they were ever to name 20 Canadians of any era to an all Canadian dream team, Mark Messier would be there, and would likely be their leader.

Messier chatted with the media via teleconference prior to Hall of Fame weekend. Here's some highlights:

On Edmonton winning the Cup in 1990, without Wayne Gretzky: "I never felt happy that we were able to win a Stanley Cup without Wayne. I never felt vindicated that we were able to do that on a personal level. If anything, I probably felt sad that he wasn't there to share it with us after what we had gone through with the first four. I never really felt that I had anything to prove. I shouldn't say "I," I should say "we" as a team. Didn't feel we had anything to prove as individuals whether we could or couldn't win without Wayne. We just felt we had a responsibility to ourselves and our city to do everything we could and carry on that tradition we had established there. When we were able to win, there was probably more a sense of regret and sadness that he wasn't there."

On his Cup win with the New York Rangers in 1994: "Obviously, the Stanley Cup in New York was very similar to the first one in that it was just so new to everybody. Nobody knew in Edmonton, you know, what to expect or how to react. I felt the same kind of pandemonium type feeling in New York in '94 as in '84 where it was such a feeling of sheer and utter jubilation and satisfaction for both of those Cups."

On the Battle of Alberta: "I think we wouldn't have been the same teams without Calgary pushing us to the heights that they did. And we wouldn't be the same players. I think what they forced us to do is really examine ourselves and what we were really made of. Because they forced you to answer the call, you know, your internal courage had to be summoned each and every time you played. So they really pushed us to greater heights and to greater players through that rivalry."


Eighty-Two said...

As much as I hate the Flyers and have always hated the Flyers, I have to agree with you that Bobby Clarke was a better leader (and in my mind, the best leader ever) than Messier.

I don't rememeber him as an Oiler, because I didn't have cable TV until the early 1990s., but boy did I despise him as a Ranger. And despite my knowing he played for the Canucks, I don't remember him doing anything with them!!

Whatever. As long as he's gone.

Robert L said...

Leadership does not boast.

Jean Beliveau - 10 Stanley Cups!

Not to take anything away from Messier, or to a much lesser extent, an extremely cowardly Bobby Clarke, but there are leaders, and then there are those who proclaim themselves to be such.

Sorry Buddy, if ya didn't catch Messier, you surely didn't see Clarke run and hide when he played the Canadiens.

Anonymous said...

yein the nhls messier was a great powerful skater with ability but the fact he he was never called for the amount of charging and elbowing he was doing, in my view he got away with a lot, there is too much charging not called as well as head shots . as cherry said the boards should be rounded and no icing on penalties and a pp should be 2 even if a goal is scored