Mark of a great player

He was drafted 48th overall back in 1979 by the Edmonton Oilers. But when Mark Messier retired two weeks ago, he left the game as one of the top players to have ever suited up in the NHL.
What can you possible say about Messier’s 25-year career? He did it all. Then, he did it again . . . and again . . . and again.
You know about his numerous awards and honours. You know about his six Stanley Cup rings. You know he’s going into the Hall of Fame as soon as he’s eligible.
And you know he’s going to be missed (I certainly will). But he will never be forgotten.
It’s the rare athlete who becomes eclipsed by his own legend, the player whose accomplishments are so great they almost cease to exist as a real flesh-and-blood person.
Joe Namath has it. Babe Ruth has it. Wayne Gretzky has it. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have it.
Mark Messier also has it.
And why shouldn’t he?
Glen Sather saw it, but not from a fancy goal or a display of skill. Rather, it was from a fight where Messier beat up Dennis Sobchuk when he was with the Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Association.
It was obvious that Messier was one that was going to be reckoned with and suitably was nicknamed “The Moose” because of his 6’1”, 210-pound frame, which he used to utterly punish opposing players.
But there were few who thought he would become the most complete player since “Mr. Hockey” himself, Gordie Howe.
But Messier was better than Howe in one aspect—he was a greater leader.
“We’ll Win Tonight” was the headline that screamed across the sports pages of New York City newspapers on May 25, 1994. With his team down 3-2 to the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference final, the Rangers’ captain had guaranteed a Game 6 road victory.
And Messier delivered. The Rangers were down 2-0 in the second period until Messier started making good on his Namath-like prediction by assisting on a goal, then notching the game-tying and winning goals in the third period.
Just for insurance reasons, he added an empty-netter for the hat trick.
The Rangers would go on to win Game 7 in double-overtime and then prevail over the Vancouver Canucks in another seven-game classic en route to giving the franchise its first Stanley Cup win in 54 years.
Come on, who does that?
Messier that’s who. In fact, he could have changed the spelling of his name M-e-s-s-i-a-h after that and not received much argument.
There were other moments, of course.
Like when his legend started back in 1984. The setting was Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final against the four-time defending champion N.Y. Islanders with the series tied at 1-1.
Messier would score two critical goals for the Oilers in Game 3, which would give the young team enough momentum to go on and win their first Stanley Cup. Messier earned the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP for his superb efforts.
That would be the start of the “glory years” in Edmonton and it was amazing just how much the city engulfed those Oilers, which included the likes of Paul Coffey, Yari Kurri, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson, Kevin Lowe, and a guy named Gretzky, who ran the string section of the orchestra while Messier handled percussion.
They were our kings and we were their humble servants—and even when it was the off-season, our cerebellums still were focused on them. I remember one year when it came time for players on our soccer team to pick uniform numbers and we all scrambled to find a number that matched up with an Oiler.
I got #11. I got The Moose’s number. And I tried my best to give justice to the number.
I didn’t, of course. Nobody could. Many have tried, but how could anyone try to be Messier? There was only one, and he was unforgettable.
He emerged from Gretzky’s shadow when the Oilers were winning by merely showing up to the rink. But when “The Great One” was sold off to the L.A. Kings on Aug. 9, 1988 (our city cried that day), we thought our team’s glory had vamoosed along with him.
And it appeared so when the Oilers lost to—who else?—the Gretzky-led Kings in seven games after taking a 3-1 series lead.
But then came 1990.
The Moose would finish second in scoring to—who else?—“The Great One,” but the Oilers found themselves in trouble in the early playoff round when they entered Game 4 to the Chicago Blackhawks down 2-1.
A raucous crowd at the Chicago Stadium greeted the Oilers, but Messier would show no fear by taking two minor penalties in the first four-and-a-half minutes, and then would score the hat trick and lead the Oilers to the win.
Edmonton would make it to the final and beat the favoured Boston Bruins 4-1 to capture their fifth Cup in seven years (although it should have been six Cups, except those blasted Calgary Flames got us in 1986)—proving they could win without Gretzky.
Messier could have come back for another season and break Howe’s mark for most games played (he’s only 11 away from breaking the 1,767 game record), but he didn’t—because he didn’t need to. The man that was known for his mean streak and expansive heart exited with dignity and class.
Yes, he was mean (at various times during his career, he was suspended for punching, whacking, or spearing opponents, with almost every instance involving him settling a score) and other teams were scared of him, but that was a show of respect.
Messier developed an unbelievably high hockey I.Q. during his quarter-century as a pro, but his genius was never as great as his sense of the moment. You would be hard-pressed to find a player that grasped moments as profoundly as Messier, who took situations and bent them according to his will.
He was a guy who did whatever he needed to help his team win a game, which is the highest compliment any player can receive.
The Edmontonian collected moments, not goals, and where do you find another player that?
You don’t. Not then. Not now. Not since “Mr. Hockey.”

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