The Look of A Winner

Midway through the NHL playoffs, center Mark Messier has fixed his sights on another Stanley Cup for Edmonton
May 08, 1988

It is important not to laugh at this moment, because Mark Messier has the Look on his face. It says, "I want to tear something or someone limb from limb," and at 6'1", 205 pounds, the Edmonton Oilers center is built to back up his gaze. Messier has just left a birdie putt short, the third time he has done so through 11 holes at the Edmonton Country Club. "Boldly struck, Alice," says Paul Messier, safe in the knowledge that even in a rage Mark is not going to dismember his older brother. A spectator enjoys no such exemption, and, so, keeps a straight face.

Perry Berezan can tell you about the Look. Berezan is the Calgary Flames forward whom Messier put out of the Stanley Cup playoffs with a monster check in Game 3 of the Oilers' four-game sweep. Messier has the same look in his eyes now as he did then—and he's carrying a club. His patented glower could make a freight train take a dirt road. The Look has wilted referees and made sensible NHL players long for the end of their shift.

But Messier enjoys life too much to stay mad for long. Before reaching the next tee, he has forgotten the missed birdie. As Paul addresses the ball, Mark says, "Your right foot is way too far forward." His concentration ruined, Paul slices his drive into the woods.

It isn't enough for Messier, 27, to be one of the NHL's five best players and to be the leading scorer in the playoffs (at the end of the second round he had 20 points in nine games) for a team that is a strong favorite to win its fourth Stanley Cup in five years. Winning—on the ice or on the links—is all-important to Messier. At an Oilers practice last week, Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton's other center, surprised backup goaltender Daryl Reaugh with a blur of a shot from the blue line, and then let out an ecstatic whoop. Moments later, during the same drill. Messier found forward Glenn Anderson with a slick pass that Anderson failed to handle. "C'mon, Andy!" barked Messier, all business.

Listen to Gretzky skate: flick, flick, flick. He plays above the ice. Now listen to Messier: scrape, scrape, scrape. He assaults the ice. In a 1987 documentary about the Oilers, The Boys On The Bus, Messier and Gretzky discussed why they play hockey. Gretzky plays for the fun of it; Messier plays to challenge himself.

"What you see with Mark is what you get," says Gretzky. "He shoots straight from the hip. And he loves life." When Messier goes water-skiing with friends, he wants to get his shoulder closer to the water than anyone else. He wants to be the best-dressed, have the darkest tan, have the best time—or die trying.

This season Messier has established himself as one of the top playmakers in the league. He finished the regular season with 37 goals and a career-high 74 assists, but the statistic he's most concerned about is still in question. "The measure of Mark's game is not in goals and assists," says Gretzky. "The statistic he cares about is Number of Stanley Cups Won."

As Detroit—having ousted St. Louis in five games—looked ahead to its Campbell Conference championship series against Edmonton, Red Wings coach Jacques Demers raved about the Oilers' superior skill and described Messier as "a bulldozer who'll go through you as soon as go around you." Said Edmonton's All-Star defenseman Kevin Lowe, "You have to go back to Gordie Howe to find someone who can dominate every aspect of a game—puckhandling, checking, skating—the way Mark can, although I'm not sure Howe was as fast as Mark."

Last year, incidentally, Lowe and Messier went barhopping with the Stanley Cup, hockey's most venerable symbol, dropping in on such unvenerable establishments as the Bruin Inn in St. Albert, Alberta, where Messier's parents live. "What good is winning the thing," says Messier, "if you can't enjoy it?"

Messier asks the question as he redlines his Porsche down Edmonton's 104th Avenue on his way home from practice. Messier knows where Edmonton's finest have set up speed traps, and what a stroke of luck that is, because his personal speed limit is often unrelated to the posted limit. "I've been told to be patient, to put a little away for the future," says Messier. "But who wants to sit and look at your money and wish you had a ski boat, a nice car, a nice summer cottage? Why not have those things now?"

If Messier wants something, he goes after it. "And shares it," says his father, Doug. Messier may be a tad reckless, impulsive and unpredictable, but selfish he's not. "Not a selfish bone in his body," says Lowe. "He works extremely hard and enjoys reaping the rewards—and sharing them."

When Messier was selected to play in the NHL All-Star Game for the first time, in 1982, he insisted on flying his family to Washington, D.C., for the game. Doug, a former minor league player and coach who now helps run the family wholesale and retail clothing business, balked at the cost of the airfare and accommodations. "That's a lot of money," he told his son.

"What's the use of making the team if I can't share it?" replied Mark, brushing all objections aside. The Messiers had a blast in Washington.

Times haven't always been so great for them, however. In 1984, Doug was fired after two seasons as coach of the American Hockey League's Moncton Hawks, who had missed the playoffs both seasons. In 1987, the family business, called Number Eleven—the number Mark wears on his jersey—ran into production snags. And last fall Mark had a paternity suit brought against him by a New York model; he has declined to comment on the matter.

A tightly knit clan, the Messiers insulate one another from difficulties. Doug and Mary-Jean were married in 1957 and had four children over the next five years. "I'm sure we were hell to raise," says Mary-Kay Messier, 25. "But we're very close now." Indeed, except for Jennifer, 28, who is married to Boston Bruin defenseman John Blum, all the Messier siblings live, more or less, at Mark's 11th-floor (what else?) Edmonton condo. The more Messiers the merrier.

The source of Mark's pugnacity—indeed, of the Look—is no mystery. At 52, Doug is a no-nonsense man who, like his younger son, can fix you with a mighty baleful glare. He never lifted weights during his playing days, but in the off-season he worked loading cement trucks. "Each bag weighed 87½ pounds," recalls Doug, "and it was sort of a competition to load the truck three bags at a time."

Short on speed but an adequate puck-handler, Doug was a defenseman in the Western Hockey Association who "protected" his team's skill players. In 1970, Doug retired as a player, went back to school to get his master's in education and started coaching. In 1975 his Spruce Grove (Alberta) Mets won the Canadian Tier Two Junior championship.

Of Doug's two sons, Paul seemed a surer bet to make it to the NHL than Mark. He never did, although he once played for the Moncton Hawks and currently plays left wing in a professional league in West Germany. Three years Paul's junior, Mark was the Mets' stick-boy. "Paul couldn't skate like Mark," says Mary-Jean, tipping her hand as a hockey wife and mother. "But as far as scoring, he had softer hands."

Mark made careful mental notes. If he couldn't handle the puck with Paul's flair, well, he could still make his living as an enforcer. In 1978, at age 17, Mark leapfrogged from Tier Two to the Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Association. He scored one goal in 47 games—a fluke goal from center ice—but Edmonton coach Glen Sather saw him "beat the tar" out of an Oiler forward named Dennis Sobchuk. "Sobchuk was a very talented player," says Messier, "but he wasn't very tough." When the WHA went bust in 1979, Sather drafted Messier for the Oilers.

In his first few years in Edmonton, Messier exceeded every expectation on the ice and off. He could skate, he could fight and he broke probably every training rule in Sather's book. In no time he was making plays and scoring picture-book goals. Osmosis, says his father. Had Mark been drafted by, say, the Red Wings, he might never have scored more than 20 or 25 goals in a season. But playing with Gretzky, Anderson, Lowe and Jari Kurri, four of the best players in the world. Messier turned into a silky scorer. In the 1981-82 season he scored 50 goals, and he has had 100-plus-point seasons four times since then.

Not that Messier was about to forget he is his father's son. During the 1984 Canada Cup, Mark opened Soviet winger Vladimir Kovin's face with an elbow. Kovin required 25 stitches. In December '84, Messier received a 10-game suspension for shattering Flames defense-man Jamie Macoun's cheekbone with one punch.

After the 1983-84 season, with a Conn Smythe Trophy under his belt for having been the MVP in the playoffs, Messier could have become a free agent. Instead, he agreed to a contract extension with the Oilers. "The guys we have together here, you have to think it's a miracle," Messier says. Messier did hold out for more money last summer. After helping Team Canada win the Canada Cup in a spectacular series against the Soviet National Team, Messier took a few days off before reporting to the Oilers' camp. "I felt like dancing," he says. "So it was off to Mannheim [West Germany] to visit Paul and do some club-hopping."

"The phone would ring and it would be Slats, and I'd say, 'Mark isn't in right now, Glen,' " says Paul. "I'm not sure where he is."

Messier finally went home and, with the help of Doug, negotiated a fat new six-year contract. Said Sather at the time, "How would you like to spend three weeks staring across a table at Doug Messier?"

Sather was more reluctant to lose Messier than Paul Coffey, the offensive defenseman who held out at the same time and is now a Pittsburgh Penguin. Off ice, says Lowe, Messier has become "a leader, if not the leader on the team," one who inspires confidence and a smidgen of fear. According to insiders, a "talk" from Messier persuaded forward Kent Nilsson to get his behind in gear last season. Messier admits to nothing.

"A basic rule when he was a stickboy was, 'What's said in the locker room, that's as far as it goes,' " says Doug, who will always be a hockey coach. Mark Messier remains true to that tenet.

He still has problems with the circumstances of his father's firing. "Can't fire 19 players, so you might as well fire the coach, right?" says Mark. The sarcasm, unusual for Messier, is a clue that he is bitter.

He asked that question on his way to play golf with Paul. Out on the course Messier is gregarious again—until he starts leaving putts short. Finally, on the 18th, he runs a 12-footer at the cup so hard that the ball hits the back of the hole and takes a little jump before clunking into the cup. Now it's O.K. to laugh.

PHOTOPAUL BERESWILLEven between shifts, Messier gives the Look that spells trouble for the Oilers' opposition. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOBrother Paul (left) and pal Jim Jerome know Mark is driven, no matter what the game. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHODoug, a coach-turned-clothier, helped Mark to negotiate his latest contract.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)