YOU CAN PICTURE THEM ON THE HENRY HUDSON Parkway. Or maybe the
Bruckner Expressway. Or whatever route they use. They are the
wrong-way commuters, traffic hurrying toward the city on one side of
the median divider as they cruise together in the other direction to
a New York Ranger morning practice at the old Ice Casino rink at Rye
(N.Y.) Playland. Mark Messier and Brian Leetch. The New York City
While the rest of the players -- with the exception of goalie Mike
Richter, a transplant to the city a year ago -- are finishing
breakfast in the kitchens of their suburban houses close to the rink,
the Rangers' two biggest stars are on the road. The New York City
guys. Save time by living in the 'burbs? Save time for what? The beat
of Manhattan is important. The excitement. Why live in Nowhereville
if the name of the largest city in the U.S. is part of your team's
logo? Why not be around if David Letterman is looking for two slap
shooters to try to destroy a Late Night camera? Why not be able to
see? And be seen? Why not?
< The New York City guys. You can see them on the highway,
talking together, playing off each other, car-poolers at home,
roommates on the road, the Charles Bronson-tough veteran center and
the quiet defenseman, stars of the show, heading not only for
practice but toward that Stanley Cup that was so elusive for so, so
long. . . .
The friendship began in the fall of 1991 with the arrival of
Messier. He came with all the thunder of a tent-revival evangelist --
and with five Stanley Cup rings in his pocket -- for the home opener
at Madison Square Garden. Before that game the Garden lights dimmed
for a celebration of the NHL's 75th anniversary, to which the Rangers
had invited many of their former captains. As the old-timers stood on
the ice, the public address announcer read off their names to routine
applause, and then he said, ''And the Rangers' newest captain. . .
''I was looking for the mind-set of a winner to bring into the
locker room,'' New York general manager Neil Smith, who had traded
three players to the Edmonton Oilers for Messier, explains. ''It's
that repetitive mind-set that thinks only of winning, that knows how
Thirty years old, coming off an injury-filled season, leaving
Edmonton, where the success of the Oilers had always been attributed
mostly to Wayne Gretzky, Messier had assorted points to prove. How
good, really, was he? How much could he add to a team?
The first day, he walked from player to player in the dressing
room, extending his hand and introducing himself. Who did that in the
shuffle-along world of professional sports? The first week he asked
the Rangers' trainer to move a large jug of Gatorade that was sitting
on top of a table in the middle of the dressing room.
''What's the problem?'' the trainer asked.
''I want to be able to have eye contact with my teammates,''
Eye contact was followed by conversations about anything,
everything. Conversations were followed by impromptu gatherings. Some
were meetings, coaches excluded, Messier telling his teammates, tears
in his eyes, that he could not ''stand losing.'' Other times there
were parties. After a win in St. Louis he ordered the driver to stop
the team bus at a bar on the route to the hotel. Everyone went to the
bar. In Los Angeles there was a golf outing. Don't play golf? Come
anyway and enjoy the sunset. Everyone went. Christmas? A party. In
Chicago, New Year's Eve, there was a toast at midnight to the
success of the Rangers. Everyone raised a glass.
One of Messier's projects was to coax the best out of Leetch. It
was good that they were commuters together. It was even better that
they were roommates on the road. Leetch, still only 23 at the time,
was the building block to a better future, the young star. A
first-round draft choice in 1986, he had joined the Rangers after the
'88 Olympics and now was entering his fourth complete season with the
team. He had been the NHL Rookie of the Year in '89, a take-control,
offensive-minded defenseman, much better than expected, and had been
an All-Star before breaking an ankle late in '90 and an All-Star
again in '91. If there was anyone who would help lift New York to the
Cup, it was Leetch.
''I talked to him about purely concentrating on hockey,'' Messier
says. ''There's so much that goes into that. The lifestyle, dealing
with the travel, the food, everything. To have energy for practice,
energy all around. You get that energy around the dressing room, and
everybody can feed off it. He's a guy who plays 30-35 minutes a game.
On the power play. Killing penalties. We need him so much. He had to
be our big man.''
The 1991-92 regular season evolved exactly the way Messier wanted.
His message fell on ears that strained to listen. The Rangers stormed
to the best record in the league. Messier led New York in scoring
with 107 points and was an easy choice for the Hart Trophy, the NHL's
MVP award. Leetch had the best season of his career, picking up 102
points, and was given the Norris Trophy as best defenseman in the
The final part of the well-made story was winning the Cup. Messier
would skate around with the trophy first as the evangelist captain.
Leetch would skate with it next. All of the eager Rangers would skate
with it, champions after that long drought. What could be better?
Well, nothing really. Except it took two more seasons to supply
''Anyone who's going to be successful here better be prepared to
see both sides of New York,'' Messier says. ''If you can't take it
when it's bad, you'd better find another line of work. No hard
Two years. There was the flop in the 1992 playoffs: the
late-season players' strike sending everyone home for 10 days, the
magic never returning, at least not to the Rangers, who lost to the
eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in the second
round of the playoffs. There was the seasonlong flop | in 1992-93:
Messier in conflict with coach Roger Neilson; Neilson getting fired;
Leetch being injured twice; New York missing the playoffs. This year
there was the climb through the playoffs at the end that somehow
should have been edited into the highlights of two years ago.
During the postseason the New York City guys were in the middle of
everything. Who overcame the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern
Conference finals, almost through the force of his own will,
guaranteeing the needed win in Game 6 first with his words, then with
his natural hat trick? Was Messier's leadership ever highlighted
Who was the best, most consistent player on the ice, the player
with the most energy anywhere in the Stanley Cup finals? Vancouver
Canuck coach Pat Quinn went so far as to invoke the name Bobby Orr
when talking about Leetch. That was how good he was in the final
The quiet one. The forceful one. The American from Cheshire, Conn.
The Canadian from Edmonton. The unlimited future. The veteran winner.
You picture the car, driver and passenger off on another trip, maybe
a trip to see some suburban teammates, Leetch and Messier staring at
the traffic coming from the opposite direction. Is that a large
silver trophy sitting in the back seat? You imagine you can hear
laughing. A lot of laughing, all of it coming from these two hockey
players who finally have made it big in the biggest town of all.