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Mark Messier's Late ShiftWhy would the Rangers' 41-year-old captain keep playing a ferocious sport against men half his age? Because there's nothing he'd rather do

Dec. 09, 2002
Dec. 09, 2002

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Dec. 9, 2002

Mark Messier's Late ShiftWhy would the Rangers' 41-year-old captain keep playing a ferocious sport against men half his age? Because there's nothing he'd rather do

Even the name sounds iconic: Messier. In 1994 the bellicose
Madison Square Garden poets--the deli workers, deliverymen and
god-knows-what-they-do characters who dance and shout insults
near the rafters--converted it to Messiah. No one calls him that
now, of course; it's a relic of festive times. The New York
Rangers fell apart when he left, in '97, and even with him back,
they remain in a drought. Messier, in his 25th professional
season, occupies a position somewhere between star and role
player--with-portfolio. Among the 5,500 men who have played in
the NHL, only Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, took part in more games
than Messier has. He is not only the last man remaining from the
Edmonton Oilers' best teams, but he is also the last Cincinnati
Stinger, the last Indianapolis Racer, the last man left from the
entire World Hockey Association. He has gone from being a
passionate, young roughneck to a passionate and thoughtful elder.
Glen Sather, the Rangers' general manager, who coached Messier in
Edmonton from 1979--80 through '88--89, says, "In the beginning I
would go to him with a suggestion and let him think he came up
with the answer. Now I go to him with a problem and let him tell
me the solution." His name and his presence still evoke a broad
catalog of images, nearly all of them quasi-heroic, especially
the victory he guaranteed against the New Jersey Devils in the
1994 semifinals. The four points and the hat trick he had that
night are as impressive a performance as any modern athlete can
claim. Where his stature matters most, in the Rangers' locker
room, he remains a figure of reverence..

This is an article from the Dec. 9, 2002 issue Original Layout

What no one is sure of now are his abilities. The 2003 edition of
the Hockey Scouting Report all but dismisses him: "There are few
better big-game players in NHL history than Messier, but the past
is the past." He has been called the greatest leader in sports so
often that his career as an after-dinner speaker is assured. The
last half decade, though, has been humbling. When asked recently
whether he has ever lost confidence, he said, "Pick any one of
the last five years." This season has started unevenly for the
Rangers and might continue to be vexing. Messier, however, has
excelled. In November he scored goals in three straight games and
had four goals in six games. Last year he played 41 games and had
seven goals. This year it took him only 15 games to get seven,
and through Sunday he had 10, one fewer than Mario Lemieux.

Messier is consistently among the first players to leave the ice
after a Rangers' practice, but he is rarely idle while he's out
there. His eyes appear always to be scouting the rink, he seems
always to have a task at hand. His attention to the details of
the game is meticulous and surprising in someone whose skills are
both superior and mature. Recently, while the rest of the team
worked on a drill from which Messier had been excused--the bright
student exempt from remedial work--he slowly lined up a row of
pucks so that against the ice they looked like perforations on a
sheet of white paper. The pucks were 20 feet from the goal. The
goal was empty. He raised his stick until the blade pointed at
the ceiling, then he brought it down slowly and deliberately,
sending each puck toward a different area of the net, as if to
see whether after all these years there was something new to be
discovered about the physics of the rink, the flight of the puck.
A master casually reinforcing the muscle memory.

Messier as a young man had a panoply of skills. If you could
design a hockey player, you would make him big, strong, fast,
tough, fearless, smart, skilled, determined and remorseless.
Great players have sometimes had only some of these attributes.
Messier had all of them. Furthermore, he had no significant
limitations. He skated powerfully and, because of how strong he
was, with exceptional balance and agility. That meant that he
could pretty much catch any player he wanted to hit or strip the
puck from. His capacity for reaching top speed in only a few
strides gave him wagonloads of breakaways and shorthanded
chances. Because he was so big (6'1", 210 pounds), he frequently
hurt people when he hit them, and his balance ensured that he
didn't fall or take himself out of the play. Not only could he
skate fast, but he could also perform the elements of the
game--passing, shooting and stickhandling--in full flight. This
forced other players to concede him room. If you played him too
close, he might leave you behind. And it was dangerous to crowd
him. He was resentful of company and liable to violence. "Messier
doesn't play the game square," Don Cherry once said. "He's like
Gordie Howe: You bother him, and there's nothing he won't do to
you. He could end your career."

Messier didn't end anyone's career, but he accumulated a rap
sheet. In 1984 he was suspended 10 games for breaking the jaw of
the Calgary Flames' Jamie Macoun, who had hit him from behind. In
'88 Messier got six games off for striking the Vancouver Canucks'
Rich Sutter in the mouth with the blade of his stick. People who
saw it say that Sutter removed pieces of hockey tape from his
mouth. In the playoffs one year Messier and New Jersey's Scott
Stevens went into the corner and, according to Rangers goalie
Mike Richter, "You couldn't even see what happened, it took place
so quickly, but Messier came out of the corner skating toward the
bench with his hands held out for a new stick, and Stevens was on
his knees holding his head. Messier had broken his stick against
Stevens. And at the time Messier played with an aluminum stick."

Messier has big, hay-baler's hands, thick shoulders and a small,
intent and thoughtful face. His wide, almond-shaped eyes and bald
head give him a vaguely Asian look, a man who can make things
happen in Hong Kong. The eyes are famously, almost lyrically,
expressive--belligerent, glowering, furious, indignant and
intolerant of resistance. "Like the eyes of an eagle," John
Davidson once said. Cherry, less poetically, described them as
"Charlie Manson eyes." Part of what makes Messier so disturbing
as an opponent is the suggestion in his eyes that he is
occasionally only half under control. "When I first came into the
league," says Rangers wing Matthew Barnaby, "if you hit him in
the corner, you kind of stood back to see what would happen. Is
he going to fight? Is he going to hit you? I don't fear too many
guys in this league, but there's always been that aura about him
that's different from everyone else's. He doesn't know what he's
going to do himself."

Hockey helmets exaggerate a player's appearance. Without their
helmets many of them look diminished. Stevens, for example,
doesn't look quite as menacing without his helmet. Messier's old
Winn-Well helmet appears to be clamped down on his head like a
rivet. It looks as if it has to be unscrewed to be taken off.
Around the Rangers' locker room he sometimes wears a white terry
cloth robe, like a boxer, that has stitched on the breast MOOSE,
because in Edmonton he was known as the Moose on the Loose.

Messier was never the brainiest player in the game--Wayne
Gretzky, Doug Gilmour, Lemieux and Steve Yzerman were more adept
at thinking their way through the intricacies and possibilities,
but Messier is a very intelligent player. He knows when to look
and where to look, and he is capable of making precise and
delicate plays at moments when they are the unexpected choices.
He is as smart as he needs to be. None of those other four
players had the array of talents that Messier has. He is also a
bit of a riverboat gambler. He makes plays that are risky and
sometimes they fail. No one is 100% in the NHL.

What about now? The succinct scouting report on Messier at 41
might be, "Aggressive, strong, nasty, solid skills, good vision,
a warrior, can hurt you in all areas. Probably don't want to
cross him." He is no longer one of the league's biggest players,
but he is not small, either. He still skates with authority and
power, and only the fleetest skaters can elude him. He's as good
a playmaker as he ever was. His conditioning is superb. He's
immensely reliable. He no longer intimidates simply by his
presence, but as Rangers coach Bryan Trottier says, "I still
don't think you want to make him mad."

He has been surpassingly adaptable. The notable players nearly as
old as he is--defenseman Chris Chelios of the Detroit Red Wings,
center Adam Oates of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, center Ron Francis
of the Carolina Hurricanes and Stevens--are playing a game
stylistically similar to the one they played as young men. The
current version is refined and more intelligent and circumspect,
surely, but it doesn't diverge materially from its former
embodiment. Messier arrived in the league as a fourth-line banger
in 1979--80. He had played 47 games the season before in the WHA,
and the only time he scored was when a goalie misplayed his
dump-in. Messier was a close observer, though, and he improved
quickly. When the Oilers needed another center, he was moved from
the wing. The decade of dominance followed.

His most virulent detractors now say it was a decade only and a
decade ago. The accolades many of them gave him so generously
have been withdrawn ("He's too old") or are reserved ("Let's see
how he does") or have turned harsh ("He should have retired
instead of coming back to the Rangers"). They say that he plays
too often on the periphery and that his presence is no longer
daunting. That the ice time he consumes comes at the expense of a
younger player who might occupy the role Messier did in times
past. Finally they ask, a trifle querulously, how he can be
described as the greatest leader in sports when for the past five
years he hasn't led his team into the playoffs. There is no
definitive response to any of these objections--they involve
matters of opinion--but to take them one at a time, nonetheless:
Messier no longer plays a power forward's game because a game
based on banging and wrestling with towering young men isn't
sensible for a man his age, even one as strong as Messier. It is
why he developed his abilities as a playmaker. He can no longer
take over a game, but he can frequently impose his intentions a
shift at a time. And he cannot be overlooked. As New York center
Bobby Holik says, "He's still Mark Messier."

The argument about ice time usually includes the surmise that the
Rangers organization hasn't got the nerve to tell Messier that he
isn't the player he was and that he cannot expect to kill
penalties and skate on the power play and assume the ice time of
a first-or second-line forward. Messier is, on paper, the
Rangers' third-line center, behind Eric Lindros and Holik, and
possibly their fourth, behind Petr Nedved. Nevertheless, before
Holik injured his hip, Messier was on the ice nearly as much as
any other Rangers forward. Partly this was a result of Lindros's
being suspended for a game, thrown out of a game and benched for
most of another. It is not that Trottier is reluctant to tell
Messier that he cannot have the time he once had. Trottier
doesn't strike anyone who talks with him as hesitant, and if
there was a visual aid for determination in the NHL before
Messier, it was Trottier. Messier's ice time is accounted for by
the fact that when Trottier scans the bench he is looking for
players he can depend on; who know what to do in any situation;
who will play, as Trottier says, "with composure and poise." Down
a goal or two, the Rangers want Lindros on the ice. After that
they would prefer Messier to Holik, a defensive specialist.
Protecting a lead, they prefer Messier to Lindros. Which leaves
Messier a second-line center.

Messier protects his privacy. With reporters his manner is
cautious and polite to the point of being wary; he seems to
recoil, as if he expects an unpleasant surprise in the package he
is about to unwrap. Sather suggested that Messier might be
interested in talking about the house that he built on Hilton
Head Island, S.C. "It's one of those hurricane-proof Japanese
houses," Sather said. "He researched the whole thing." When
Messier is asked about it, he says, "Ah, well, I don't like to go
into personal matters." He is careful about who he spends his
time with, but among his friends he is unguarded. His nature is
expansive and inclusive. He is known for his enthusiasms--he
especially likes to fish and to travel--and for his openness to
experience. He spends a lot of time with his mother and father,
Mary-Jean and Doug, his brother, Paul, and his two sisters,
Jennifer and Mary-Kay. Often some combination of them appear with
him at social events. His sense for the rhythms of a team and its
concerns, its manner and attitudes, clearly was influenced by the
closeness of his family.

Messier believes that a team can succeed only when the players
feel a commitment to one another that takes in more than their
professional obligations, a commitment that is essentially
social. "Because you take somebody to dinner," he says, "or let a
player stay in your apartment or you lend him your car--it's a
nice gesture and it makes someone feel good--but it's not the
defining thing that makes or breaks your team. Those things are
blown out of proportion. You have to know your people: where they
came from, their relationships with their fathers and mothers,
what's troubling them, what triggers an action. You want to know
what lives underneath, and until you develop that relationship,
you can't build a team bond. There's always sticking up for each
other, but guys will do that because it's their job. If you don't
know your people, it doesn't matter if you lend them your car."

What a leader must provide, he believes, is consistency. "You
can't have someone be one sort of person one day and the next day
be another," he says. "It's important to know what you stand for,
to be true and unwavering. Everyone can read off you then, they
know who you are. When you offer help or guidance, advice on
problems, they can trust you. If you're not hiding anything, you
can wear who you are on your sleeve."

Messier is fond of Pat Riley's remark, "There's winning, and
there's misery." The desire to prevail, if it isn't selfless
though, is not often welcomed in pro sports. Messier wants to be
a member of a winning team; he doesn't want to win the scoring
title every year or collect the most goals or break records. "He
was a great teammate," Sather says of Messier's years in
Edmonton. "When the score was 6--2 or 7--2, he was never the guy
clamoring to get over the boards to pad his statistics. He always
let the other guys do it."

Messier's singular devotion has caused him to be perceived as
something of a solitary. The Rangers who were young men with
him--Richter and defenseman Brian Leetch, for example--have
married and begun families. Messier lives with his girlfriend,
Kim Close, whom he met in Vancouver, but he has never been
married. When asked why not, he says, "I didn't want to do
anything halfheartedly or spread myself too thin and find that
nothing was working. There are always sacrifices you have to
make. Nothing comes without a cost."

As for the day when he dresses for the last time as a hockey
player, he says, "We all know that things change, that permanence
isn't a condition of life." And, "It's not like the subject has
crept up on me in the last year or two." What he cares more about
is finishing his career with passion. "You've got to play every
game to win," he says. "What are you saving it for? As you grow
older, you can accept the things that happen without losing the
drive and focus you need. I think the biggest thing is not to get
tainted or cynical. The longer you play, the more you know, and
what you know isn't necessarily all to the good. So you try to
hold on to your experience and knowledge while keeping your
first-training-camp attitude and not letting things bother you.
There's a fine line to staying focused and hungry to win.
Following it is a good test, a good journey. When the end comes
then, it's not a difficult thing. You continue the life you live,
the way you think and behave, you go on as you are."

Older players are traditionally less tolerant when someone goes
after them than younger players are. A player of Messier's age
has to be concerned about a younger man, hopeful of making an
impression, who handles him rudely. Gretzky, in remarks he made
around the time of his retirement in 1999, seemed to suggest that
the players had grown so much bigger than they were when his
career began, and to acknowledge the possibility of one of them
hurting him seriously. When Sather was asked if he was concerned
that this might happen to Messier, he said, "Mark's the type of
guy, if someone's going to bang him, they're going to pay the
price."

The Rangers' preseason game in September against the Boston
Bruins was a quiet and polite affair, except that it included a
classical Messier moment. Early in the second period Messier,
standing about three feet from the left quarter boards in the
Bruins' end, received a pass at his feet. As he looked down, a
young Bruins forward named Matt Herr charged toward him. Herr's
shoulder caught Messier in the center of his chest, throwing him
backward. His arms spread like wings, his feet flew apart and his
tail banged down on the ice. It was a figure skater's fall, a
citizen's fall. The next day Herr was asked why he had treated
Messier with such disregard. "Honestly, I didn't know it was
him," Herr said. "I was just trying to make the team. I played
him like I would have played anybody else, but what happened next
caught me off guard."

Messier picked himself up as Herr followed the puck toward the
corner. A Rangers player sent it back up the boards to Messier.
Again it arrived at his feet. Herr wheeled toward Messier. This
time Messier ignored the puck. As Herr arrived, Messier strode
toward him and suddenly raised his elbow. Herr went down like
someone in a cartoon who ran into a tree branch he hadn't seen.
As Herr lay without moving, Messier circled him as if only the
presence of the referees kept him from doing more harm. Herr was
helped to the bench. The referees tossed Messier. "I understood
the consequences of hitting Mark Messier--I wasn't trying to stir
anything up--and I had heard he's a guy who takes it hard," Herr
said, "but I didn't expect the straight-arm elbow to the jaw. I
had no clue it was coming. I thought somebody else was going to
come after me. I was too excited playing at the Garden to take
proper notice. Anyway, I'm not going to walk into that elbow
again. I was seeing stars."

When Messier was asked his side, he said, "I got the puck at my
feet, and the guy hit me solidly, which is fine--that's what he's
supposed to do. The second time I got it at my feet, he came back
to me." Messier was taking his skates off after practice, wiping
the ice shavings from the first one with his fingers.

"Were you trying to send a message?" He leaned over and began
unlacing the second one. His face broke into one of those grins
that seems to shut his eyes and split his face in two.

"Does that mean yes?"

He sat up, started to say something, then seemed to think better
of it. Then still grinning, he said, "Let's just say that once
was enough."

He is like the soldier who keeps signing up for another tour when
everyone else goes home. You wonder what makes him do it. As his
father says, he doesn't need the money. You can regard Messier's
life as an admirable example of selfless and single-minded
purpose. Or you can wonder if it doesn't reside among the further
precincts of what is tolerable and perhaps sensible as social
behavior. The soldier who keeps reenlisting often regards
civilian life as a territory he is afraid to inhabit. Decisions
intimidate him. He prefers the routine, the dependable, life
looked after by someone else, the anxieties collapsed to a single
concern: his performance. Messier seems motivated by a love of
hard work's best result. By a deep pleasure in pursuit, right
conduct and desire within a context. He also seems like someone
whose ideals and philosophies equip him to inhabit another
version of himself when the time comes. He doesn't seem at a loss
for imagining another way to be.

He doesn't seem to welcome it, either. Pleasure seems fundamental
to him. When he smiles, he smiles broadly. His enthusiasms are
unrestrained. For all his dignity on the ice and in the locker
room, perhaps no one has ever acted goofier with the Stanley Cup
than Messier. The leaping, spastic dance that he did in 1994 as a
Ranger when Game 7 was over. The huge openmouthed grin as he held
the Cup and pumped it up and down. Year after year players
accepted the Cup and held it with awe and reverence and a sense
of occasion. Messier was the picture of unfettered joy.

A few weeks ago Messier went to a movie premiere in New York
City. His father was there and his brother and a friend who
taught Messier to fish in Hawaii, where Messier took his family
the summer after the Rangers won the Cup. His girlfriend, Kim,
was there and so were Leetch and his wife, Mary Beth. The movie
was The Truth about Charlie, in which Messier's friend Tim
Robbins has a role. Beforehand, Messier and the group had drinks
at a Mexican restaurant, and someone mentioned a numbing hit that
the Rangers' Ronald Petrovicky had delivered a few days earlier
on the Tampa Bay Lightning's Ruslan Fedotenko. It was one of
those car-crash hits. Fedotenko hadn't seen Petrovicky coming,
and the impact was so forceful that Fedotenko's head snapped
back. Leetch said the collision had made a terrible sound on the
ice. Doug Messier said, "Got caught with his head down. You
figure he won't do that again."

Messier stood at the bar with his enormous back to the room. A
small man behind him somewhat timidly tapped him on the shoulder.
Messier turned and saw that the man was standing with his hands
on the shoulders of a boy. "I called my son when I saw who was in
the bar," the man said later. "I told him, 'Get right over
here.'" Messier borrowed a pen and signed a napkin for the boy,
who seemed too overwhelmed to frame a sentence. When Messier
asked if he played hockey, the best the boy could manage was a
nod. It was left to his father, who was also nodding, to say, "He
does. Definitely. Yes, he does."

The other people in the bar seemed to pay no attention to
Messier, but when he left, nearly every head turned to watch him.
As he walked the few blocks to the theatre--where he would pause
on a red carpet for photographers who were saying, "Over here,
Mark," and "This side, too, please," and "Maybe some with you
together," so that he put his arm around Kim--he said, "This
city, there's just so many great things going on. I wish I could
turn back the clock 20 years."

"Getting old is terrible," someone said.

"It's not getting old," Messier said, "It's wanting to play more
hockey."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL O'NEILL TRY ME After an injury-plagued 2001--02, Messier is healthy again and is second on the Rangers in goals.TWO B/W PHOTOS: COURTESY OF THE MESSIER FAMILY (LEFT) KID MESS Even at six, Messier could light it up; at 17, he was already a pro with the WHA's Cincinnati Stingers.COLOR PHOTO: B. BENNETT/B. BENNETT STUDIOS POWER AND GLORY In the mid-1980s, Messier and Gretzky led the freewheeling Oilers to four Stanley Cups in five seasons.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO DOWN BY CONTACT Ex-Blue Sean Hill finds out the hard way that even an over40 Messier can deliver a powerful blow.COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL C WORTHY Despite the presence of stars such as Bure, Leetch and Lindros, Messier still sets the tone for the Rangers.
In 1979--80, Messier arrived in the NHL as a fourth-line banger;
when he was moved to center his decade of dominance followed.
"I don't fear too many guys in this league," says Barnaby, "but
there's always been an aura about [Messier] that's different."
His eyes are famously, almost lyrically, expressive--belligerent,
glowering, furious, indignant and intolerant of resistance.