He sometimes seems to have arrived from the mist that hangs over Long Island Sound in front of the Ice Casino rink at Rye Playland, where the New York Rangers practice. Who is this Mark Messier? Is he for real? How can he be doing the things that he is doing? There is a sense of magic about this setting, anyway. Isn't this where some scenes from the movie Big were filmed? Didn't the kid find the mechanical fortune-teller right there on the pavilion, not 200 yards from the rink? Didn't the fortune-teller offer to grant any one wish in the world?
"What would you want more than anything?"
Poof. Here he is, a balding, 31-year-old superstar, ready to show the Rangers how they can become, well...big. He smiles. He scowls. He charms. He skates deep into the corners. He plants himself in front of the net. Whatever the Rangers seem to need is what he has to offer. He is Kevin Costner's Robin Hood, suddenly walking through the locker room, gathering a group of merry men to rescue the troubled Maid Marian. Come on, boys. He knows the way.
Try to put a finger on the things he has done and sometimes you touch substance, but mostly you touch air. Changed air. A team that has been trailed by a history of postseason failure—that hasn't won the Stanley Cup since 1940—is riding toward its future at the top of the standings, best record in hockey. There is a change in confidence, a change in outlook. There is leadership. Poof. One man. There is a difference.
"You make a trade, you hope for the best," Ranger general manager Neil Smith says. "In this case, we were looking for Mark to give us as much help off the ice as on the ice. He has done even more than we expected."
The trade was made on the second day of the season, Messier coming from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for veteran Bernie Nicholls and two prospects, Steven Rice and Louie DeBrusk. The idea was that someone who has been a big part of five Stanley Cup champions, who has won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player, might be able to share secrets that have always been behind a curtain the Rangers could not open. Why do some teams rise when they reach the big games at the end? Why do other teams falter? What little wheels have to be adjusted inside each individual psyche? Do winners tie the laces on their skates differently? Do winners speak in a different winners' language to each other? What else, besides talent, does it take to win?
There have been attempts in the Rangers' past to bring the knowledge of winning into the dressing room—deals for stars like Phil Esposito and Guy Lafleur, winners who were at the end of their careers—that have failed. This one seems to be working. At week's end the Rangers had the best record in the NHL. The young faces and the old faces watch and listen. They somehow were waiting for Messier to arrive. He somehow was looking for them. This has been the new man's team since the day he arrived and went to each player, individually, and said, "Hi, I'm Mark Messier."
He has centered the Rangers' best line, with wings Adam Graves and Tony Amonte, and is leading the team in scoring with 30 goals and 60 assists for 90 points. He has worked the power play and killed penalties, taken every bodycheck and delivered his own in return. Named captain two days after he arrived, he has called meetings, planned parties, rearranged the locker room. He has changed minds, strengthened weak hearts.
"Just his presence in the locker room, the intangibles he brings, make us a better team," Graves says. "He's more valuable to this team than he ever was to Edmonton, and in 1990 he won the Hart Trophy. I'd say he has to be the premier leader in professional sports right now. Any team. Any game. Who'd be better?"
"I was talking with him the other day about the problems we've had in the past," goalie Mike Richter says. "We always seem to do well during the season, then fall flat when the biggest moment comes during the playoffs. Two straight years we've done that. It seemed we were spent at the end. I told him that we seemed burned out.
"You know what he said? I think now I probably never should have asked the question. He said he doesn't believe in burnout. Of course."
Out of the mist. A tornado.
The trade began to take shape last summer. Messier sat on the deck of the house he had bought on Hilton Head Island, S.C., and decided, for sure, that he had to leave the Oilers. There had been thoughts during the long '90-91 season, thoughts while he sat out 27 games with two different injuries, thoughts while the Edmonton franchise continued its fire-sale renovations, replacing the big-money players of the Stanley Cup times with lower-budget prospects for the future. His friends mostly were gone. Why shouldn't he go? The thoughts became action. He called Oiler general manager Glen Sather and asked to be traded.
"I'd always thought I'd play in one place for all of my life," Messier says. "But I looked at some of the people who'd left—Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri—and none of them had suffered. I started thinking it would be good for me, too. Maybe I'd done as much as I could in Edmonton. It was time for another team, another place. It would be good for me financially, and it would be sort of a rejuvenation."
He didn't want the process to be bitter. Why destroy in three or four hours the goodwill of a lot of good times? He was an Edmonton native who had grown up to be a star on the hometown team. Why go out with a lot of harsh words? He simply wanted to go. He had played for the Oilers for 12 years, since he was 18 years old. He had been on the local sports pages since he was a kid. Time enough.
He asked to go to a contender, not some dead-end team. He somehow figured New York from the beginning. Who else had the money to pay a big-time contract? Who else had a team that needed a big-time player to complete its roster? Los Angeles seemed out; Gretzky was already there. Detroit was a possibility, but New York seemed best.
Sather called Smith, who was interested but wary. What was wrong here? Why was Messier available? Superstars mostly are available when age and injury have begun to attack ability. Wasn't Messier hurt during the past season? Negotiations moved at a conservative pace. Smith made calls and pondered possibilities. He decided he wanted Messier very much.
"I was looking for that mind-set of a winner to bring into the locker room," Smith says. "It's that repetitive mind-set that thinks only of winning, that knows how to win. I think that's very big in hockey, why you see so much repetition in the teams that do win. They expect to win. They know how to win. I thought that Mark, no matter how long he played for us, would leave us with something we didn't have before. Maybe that would be how to win."
The deal was stalled until the end of the Canada Cup and completed just after the season started. Messier, 6'1", 210 pounds, took one last physical for the Rangers to show that both his injured knee and his thumb had healed. The team doctor termed him "a specimen."
Messier joined the team for the second game of the season, in Montreal, assisting on rookie Doug Weight's goal to tie the game in the third period on the way to a 2-1 overtime victory, the team's first win in Montreal since 1983. He was announced as captain at the first home game, on Oct. 7, in dramatic fashion. As part of the 75th anniversary of the NHL, the Rangers had invited many of their former captains to return for pre-game festivities. The captains were lined up at center ice after being introduced when the public-address announcer said, "And the Rangers' newest captain...." Messier skated down the line, shaking each captain's hand to loud applause. The final hand belonged to Murray Murdoch, 88, the oldest living Ranger. Past met future, and they were the same. Murdoch is Messier's great-uncle.
"It's kind of eerie, isn't it?" Messier's sister Mary-Kay says. "Murray is a man we have known all of our lives. Uncle Murray. There always have been family stories about him playing with the Rangers. Now, to have Mark here...it's like it was meant to be."
The first change in the locker room concerned the Gatorade containers. They sat where they always had, on top of a table that formed a small island in the middle of the room. Everyone was equidistant from a cool drink. Seemed like a good idea in human engineering. Not to Messier.
"Could you put them off to the side somewhere?" he asked a trainer.
"I want to be able to have eye contact with my teammates."
Such a little thing. Such a big thing. He says he didn't have any plan upon his arrival in New York except that he would act natural and try to learn as much as possible about everyone else as soon as possible. He didn't want to walk into a room of strangers and begin hitting them over the head with any phrases that started off with the words "When we were in Edmonton, we did...." No, he wanted to act natural. New team. New start. He would gain his forum by playing as hard as he could, then speak when he thought he had to speak. He would not keep quiet.
"I think he was very careful about everything associated with Edmonton," his sister says. "When he moved, he left all his trophies, all his awards, back in Edmonton. I kept asking him when he wanted me to ship them. He kept cutting me off. I couldn't figure it out. Why wouldn't he want this stuff? It's all in the basement of the house in Edmonton. Then it hit me. He was making a break. Nothing else counted. He wanted to concentrate on being a Ranger."
The meetings came next. Every team in every sport has meetings, but these were different types of meetings. Messier would ask the coaches and press and trainers to leave. The door would be locked. He would talk in a forceful, personal way. The room would go very quiet, and he would name names and cite situations and open the floor for any sort of discussion about anything.
There had been rumors about him before he came, that he could be a physical threat, that he intimidated some teammates with force. If you 're not playing well, he will push you against a wall and get right in your face. He was not like that. Everything was discussed in a positive way. What do we need? This is what we need from you. And you. And you.
"We lost a game in Los Angeles," Richter says. "Mess called a meeting. It wasn't a real bad game—we outshot them, their goalie made the saves—but still we weren't as good as we should be. Mess was very emotional. I don't want to say things I shouldn't be saying, but there were tears in his eyes. He was saying, I will not take losing as a habit. I will not stand for it.' He wasn't blaming anyone else. He said none of us should blame anyone else, that you never have to look further than yourself when you lose."
Along with the meetings, there suddenly were parties. Events. Who is going? Everyone is going. Together. After a win in St. Louis on Nov. 23, Messier directed the bus driver simply to pull over to a bar. Everyone got off the bus. There were no quibbles about important phone calls that had to be made from the hotel room, about bigger obligations or commitments. What could be a bigger obligation? Everybody went. In L.A., with the team in town for a protracted stretch, there were golf outings at a country club to which Messier belongs. His treat. Don't play golf? Come out and just look at the sunset. Greatest sunset in the world! There was a team trip to Paramount movie studios. For Christmas? A party. In Chicago, stroke of midnight, New Year's Eve, there was a toast. The entire team was together. Of course.
"I've never really seen anyone like him," Ranger coach Roger Neilson says. "The players gave all the coaches luggage for Christmas. He organized it. Nice luggage too."
He became the roommate, on the road, of up-and-down defenseman Brian Leetch. Better to preach the values of consistency. He became the linemate, almost immediately, of Graves and Amonte. Amonte, a rookie, says he can hear Messier talking to him on the ice. All the time. Little instructions. Little encouragements. He finds himself doing things he did not know he could do.
"He makes you play at a higher level," Amonte says. "He pushes me to give more than I ever could."
Around the Rangers, the stories continue. Who hasn't heard the words? Who hasn't been touched? The results in the standings have been obvious. The results in the minds, in the eye-contact locker room, have been almost as obvious.
"I've never met anyone so positive," Richter says. "Here is a guy who just lives every day as fully as he can. If you're sitting with him at dinner, everything will be the best. He will enjoy everything. He'll say, 'Isn't this wine unreal?' He is that way about everything he does."
"I think I could go away for about a month and a half, come back, and everything would be the same," Neilson says. "That's how he has this team working."
"I look at it now," Messier says, "and I think that if I sat down and wrote everything I wanted to happen, I couldn't have done a better job. It's a script. It's all been exactly what I wanted."
The rest of the Rangers, except Leetch, live in suburban Westchester to be closer to the amusement-park rink. Messier lives in a rented Manhattan condo. Mary-Kay, 29, and his brother, Paul, 34, also live in the condo. A frequent visitor is his four-year-old son, Lyon, who lives with his mother in Washington. Everything seems to work. His other sister, Jennifer, 32, lives in Boston and visits. His parents, Doug and Mary-Jean, live in the Hilton Head house. Doug and Mary-Jean also visit. Doug is his agent, representing him in contract negotiations. Paul and Mary-Kay handle endorsements and appearances.
"It seemed like everything happened together," Mary-Kay says. "We all left Edmonton at the same time. Our parents were planning on moving anyway, so this was a good time to do it. I was about to leave a job with IBM. Paul was back from Germany, where he'd retired as a player. Everyone is still close, but in a different place. I think for Christmas we had 18 people in the condo. Sleeping bags everywhere. The idea was that Mark had to be here, so we'd all be here too."
He is an instant New York guy. That is the story. A new contract, signed two months into the season, gives Messier $13 million for the next five years and makes him the third-highest-paid player in the game after Gretzky and Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux. The tabloids have reported his telephone conversations with Madonna, though he refuses to say whether or not he and she have gone on a date. He is a recognized New York face, a New York photo opportunity. He can walk to Madison Square Garden from the condo for games. He can drive, the other way against the commuter traffic, to the Rye practices. He can take a new team, make it his own. He can lead.
"I like our eagerness, I like our enthusiasm," the new man from the mist says. "I like our speed, the way we can play a pressure game. I like our goaltending. I like our team."
Big? Maybe so. Maybe this is the year.