Why Nobody Messed With Messier

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - September 21, 2005
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First it was Jerry Rice. Now it’s The Moose. After 25 years in the National Hockey League, Mark Messier, the No. 2 scorer in league history, has decided he’s had enough. The move makes him the fourth old-timer to call it quits in the last two weeks. Ron Francis, No. 4 all-time leading scorer, Al MacInnis, No. 3 among defense-men, and Scott Stevens, a 13-time All-Star, have all decided they could live without the game after being forced to sit out a season. It seems an asinine strike can have the same effect on players as it does on fans.

Like his aged contemporaries, Messier will soon find himself enshrined in Toronto. All four’s impact on the game is without question, but even among this group, Messier stands out. He was unique.

When young boys took sides in flooded back yards in Winnipeg, Regina or Vancouver, it was Messier they pretended to be. Fans and teammates wanted to emulate him. Opponents just wanted to survive. Even playing with a guy named Gretzky was not enough to overshadow him. He even won the cup after The Great One was traded to Los Angeles in what was the first in a series of salary dumps forced on the team by the changing economics of the sport.

Messier looked the part of an NHL player. Shaved head and square-jawed, he just looked tough. And he was. He intimidated opponents with not only his willingness to rough things up, but with his gifts with the stick and his ability to skate. He’s been compared to Mr. Hockey himself, and was recognized as a master of the Gordie Howe hat trick: a goal, an assist and a fight.

The Messier effect may have never been more evident than in 1984 during a playoff game against Calgary. During the seventh game of the series, Messier knocked three players out of action. After the game, his team-mate, Grant Fuhr, said one of his victims, Mike Eaves, looked like he had been hit by a bus. The Flames’ coach had another view of what happened. In an anger-filled post-game interview that has become part of Messier legend, “Badger Bob” Johnson, who once kept himself busy by making tactical notes of the games he saw on TV while fighting cancer in a Pittsburgh hospital, stammered with rage: “That Messier ... He knocked three of our guys out of the game. Three. That was ... that was ... that was ... amazing!”

As you would expect from a tough guy, his retirement announcement was straight and to the point. “No one wants to see a blubbering idiot at the podium,” he said during a conference call with the Associated Press. He felt there was nothing left for him to accomplish.

Can’t argue with that.

For everything Messier had done as a member on one of hockey’s greatest teams, the Oilers of the 1980s, it may have been his move south that cemented his legacy. Led by the guy they simply called The Captain, the Rangers finally won the Stanley Cup after five decades of futility. His rise up New York’s list of sports heroes only grew after his many unpublicized visits to Ground Zero and city fire stations following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Messier will never be forgotten - as much for his leadership as his level of play. As a near coach on the ice, he drove team-mates and himself to perform beyond their abilities. The message was always clear. The Moose had your back no matter what, but screw up and pay the price. Anyone who was the focus of “the stare” will attest to how unnerving that was.

Six Stanley Cups allows you that type of respect.

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