Mark Messier blocked a shot with his foot last month against the
Washington Capitals and crumpled to the ice, pain creasing his
face. He made it to his skates, then to the bench and, a few
shifts later, back into the game. Messier, the New York Rangers'
captain, looked like the guy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
who kept getting bits of his anatomy hacked off but insisted
that his injuries were only flesh wounds. See, it was nothing.
They can't hurt me. So they can't hurt you. Good thing, too.
When Messier got hurt, a chill crept down the spines of the
Rangers players. On the bench Ray Ferraro turned to Nick Kypreos
and asked, only half-jokingly, "What do we do now?"
"I guess," Kypreos replied, "we have to keep playing."
"You think of Patton, you think of MacArthur ... that's how we
feel about Mark," goalie Glenn Healy says of Messier. "The true
test of a leader is if he makes you a better player. He won't
make you shoot harder or pass better or make more saves, but
being a better player isn't just about skills. We sometimes say
a guy has all the tools but no toolbox. The game is about having
a toolbox, and no one understands that better or helps put
things in perspective like Mark. We believe in him, in what he
This explains why fans in New York think Messier is a typo for
Messiah. There's no question that he ranks among sports' most
respected leaders. Really, who compares? A baseball player?
Baseball consists of personal battles within a team structure,
and the most courage any baseball player exhibited last year was
showing his face in public after the strike. Michael Jordan? His
Airness doesn't lead as much as he lets teammates catch up once
in a while. John Elway and his fourth-quarter rallies? Football
requires the same combination of physical sacrifice and emotion
as hockey, but NFL teams don't play 82 matches followed by
playoff games almost every other night for two months. No team
sport is as demanding as hockey, and no hockey player demands
more of himself--and of others--than Messier.
February 12, 1996
A small stack of books sits in the living room of Messier's
three-story brownstone off Central Park West. On top sits Sacred
Hoops, a Zen-and-the-art-of-Michael-maintenance work by Chicago
Bulls coach Phil Jackson. Messier adores it. In fact, Messier,
who quit school in 12th grade, has read many books of that
genre--Pat Riley's The Winner Within, Sun Tzu's The Art of
War--about leadership, bonding, positive energy. What began as
instinct, inherited from his father, Doug, a union leader in the
old Western Hockey League, has become intellectual pursuit.
"To lead, you have to have the trust of the players, and to do
that you have to find a way to connect with them, to find common
ground with every individual," Messier says. "It's a people
issue, not a sports issue. The way to find that common thread is
compassion. The odd threat doesn't hurt"--Messier throws back his
head and laughs a basso laugh--"but with compassion the appeal to
the player is much deeper than the old hard-ass line that you're
going to get reprimanded if you don't play well. We try to build
a team, to bond, through the course of a year. And you can do
that if you appeal in a compassionate way."
He speaks New Age. He plays caveman. Messier has lugged around
the rejuvenated Rangers all season, winning face-offs, checking,
killing penalties and scoring like never before. At week's end
he had 36 goals in 52 games, which put him on pace to score 50
goals for the first time in 14 seasons. No one has ever had more
than a five-year gap between 50-goal seasons. And at 35, the
6'1", 205-pound Messier remains the fiercest player in hockey, a
steely competitor who can smelt iron ore with his eyes.
Sometimes before a big game those light-brown eyes narrow into a
glare that both opponents and teammates call the Look. His
cheekbones are high. His jaw is prominent. He can comb his hair
with a towel. His hockey helmet, jammed down to his brow,
emphasizes his most prominent features. His visage is half-man,
half-Easter Island statue. The only thing as imposing as seeing
number 11 in pursuit of a puck is seeing Messier take off his
number 11, which hides an upper body as chiseled as his face.
And that chest hides a heart. When Rangers enforcer Darren
Langdon was called up from the minors last season for his first
NHL game, he found a Hugo Boss suit hanging in his dressing-room
stall. The attached note read, "From the Guys." As it turned
out, "the Guys" was Messier, and the suit was his way of making
someone feel part of the group, like his team barbecues or
riotous masquerade parties. In recent years he has attended
those parties as the Joker, a Roman centurion and Tarzan;
Messier plays to type. "Mark has a unique way about him," says
New York defenseman Kevin Lowe, who also played with Messier on
the Edmonton Oilers, a team that won five Cups between 1984 and
'90. "He has an ability to make people comfortable, relaxed.
Everything he does is conducive to having fun."
Messier grew up on the hard-partying Oilers, whose happy hour
lasted almost a decade. "Someone asked me why I was having such
a good year at 35"--there's that laugh--"and I told them all the
years of clean living were finally paying off," says Messier,
whose appetite for high life is now sated by slightly daintier
portions. Indeed, he says he hasn't missed a curfew since he
became a captain in Edmonton. "The game is first," he says. "I
learned you had to respect it."
Messier took Leadership 101 under coach Glen Sather and Wayne
Gretzky, and by the time Edmonton won its first Stanley Cup, the
man-child was the Oilers' physical leader. There is an oft-told
story--one that might even be true--that in 1987 Messier grabbed
Kent Nilsson, a flashy but fainthearted Oilers forward, and told
him that if he didn't play harder, he would have to kill him.
"Folklore," says Lowe, who concedes that he has heard the tale.
Another former Oiler, who won't confirm the Nilsson story but
doesn't exactly deny it, either, says, "You didn't get this from
me, but I heard he also threatened [former Rangers coach] Mike
Messier assumed the Oilers captaincy in 1988 when Gretzky was
traded to the Los Angeles Kings. In a sense Edmonton always had
been Messier's team, but he never really left an indelible
imprint until May 8, 1990, when he also left an imprint on most
of the Chicago Blackhawks. That night Messier gathered the
pieces of a crumbling Oilers dynasty and made it whole, slashing
and elbowing and willing his way to victory in Game 4 of the
Stanley Cup semifinals at Chicago Stadium. Keenan, then the
Blackhawks' coach, said Messier could have been called for 15
stick fouls. "We were down 2-1 in games to Chicago, and we'd
already come back from 3-1 down to Winnipeg [in a previous
round], and Mark thought if we got down 3-1 in a series again,
we might not have enough resources to win," says Philadelphia
Flyers center Craig MacTavish, who was Messier's teammate in
Edmonton and New York. "Mark took it upon himself to win that
game. He was there hours early, quietly sitting in his stall,
and he just had the Look. Of course I remember the game. He
knocked out Denis Savard with an elbow and horrified
[defenseman] Doug Wilson on two rushes and had two goals." The
Oilers went on to take the Cup, the first of Messier's two
championships without Gretzky. Without Messier, Gretzky has none.
When Edmonton traded Messier to the Rangers in 1991, the game's
two leading players each had his own duchy, a continent apart,
where their word in the dressing room, and in the front office,
was all but gospel. Their mandates were obvious. Gretzky had to
sell hockey in California while Messier had to make hockey
matter in New York, to lead a showcase team with perennially low
self-esteem to its first Stanley Cup since 1940. Messier would
take no prisoners, not even his own coach.
If there is a perceived blot on the Messier record, it is the
1993 firing of Rangers coach Roger Neilson. Theirs was a
philosophical clash: the captain's belief in an attacking style
versus the coach's reliance on a counterattacking system. "Oil
and water," says Messier, whose mutiny cost the respected
Neilson his job. "In my mind I knew we wouldn't win the Cup his
way. Should I have shut up, gone along for the ride, finished
out my contract? Or should I have stood up and said what I felt
and taken one for the team? At times the price of winning can be
very harsh. I felt the players had to be protected. My
responsibility was to the group of guys who were good enough to
win a championship."
Messier, a graceful winner, doesn't point out that 17 months
later, he proved to be correct.
New York finally won the Cup in 1994, spurred on by a Messier
performance in Game 6 of the semifinals against the New Jersey
Devils that was as impressive as any in history. Like Joe Namath
before Super Bowl III, Messier "guaranteed" victory, though he
didn't offer fans double their money back on Lincoln Tunnel
tolls or anything else if the Rangers lost. Messier said on the
eve of the match, "I know we're going to go in and win Game 6
and bring it back here for Game 7." Of course by the time the
New York tabloids finished with him--after he had flung an
empty-netter nearly the length of the ice for a hat trick to
punctuate a 4-2 Rangers win--a Fu Manchu adorned his lip and his
jersey had turned into mink. He had become Broadway Mark.
"I remember thinking I had to do something to instill our old
confidence," Messier says. "I consciously said it, but I was
thinking in such a narrow scope that somehow I figured only our
players would get up and read the papers the next day, not all
of New York and the Devils players as well. I guess I didn't
care about the consequences at that point."
This was conspicuous leadership, apparent to anyone who bought
the New York Post. But an even truer measure of Messier's
leadership had come behind closed doors a few days before.
Keenan, who had become the Rangers' coach in '93-94, had acted
erratically in Game 4 of the Devils series, benching eventual
playoff MVP Brian Leetch after a bad shift and cutting Messier's
ice time. After the game, a 3-1 New Jersey win, Keenan
exaggerated the injuries of five key players to the press. The
benchings shocked the New York players, who were furious Keenan
hadn't given them the best chance to win the game.
The next day Messier stormed into Keenan's office for an
emotional 45-minute meeting during which the captain reminded
the coach that the players needed his support and compassion.
When Messier emerged he simply told teammates, "It won't happen
again." It didn't. Only Messier had the stature and strength to
bridge the chasm between Keenan and his team. "I've always been
curious about what exactly was said in there," one Ranger says,
"but it's not something you ask. All I know is we never would
have won the series, or the Cup, without that meeting."
"There is nothing more beautiful than 20, 25 guys thinking the
same way and then going out and winning," Messier says. "I've
won six times, and the Cup becomes part of your soul. It's not
on a conscious level--know what I mean?--but it becomes who you
are. Not your philosophy but part of your everyday being."
That is Zen. This is now. Messier is leading, the Rangers are
following, and everyone else is getting out of the way. Just
nine months ago New York looked spent, bullied out of the second
round of the playoffs by the younger, tougher Flyers. Messier
appeared on the verge of passing the torch as the NHL's best
leader to Philadelphia captain Eric Lindros last spring, but
before the 22-year-old Lindros dares to claim it, he must
recover from second-degree burns this season. In the three
Flyers-Rangers matches so far in '95-96, Messier had nine
points, Lindros two. Says Messier: "I've told guys our record
now doesn't mean anything. It's how we deal with a crisis--and
we'll have one at some point--that makes champions."
"Mark's pretty complex," says New York coach Colin Campbell. "He
contributes belligerence, but he also contributes a certain
serenity. The players feel like, We're O.K. Mark's laughing."