The irony in the retirement of the NHL's most effective leader is that his teams had not made the playoffs since 1996-97, the season before Mark Messier left the New York Rangers and signed with Vancouver. Through fallow years with the Canucks and a return engagement in New York, Messier, 44, was an aging general saddled with ragged troops. With his game in decline--he surpassed 60 points once in the past six seasons--Messier was neither able to lead a Stanley Cup charge nor recede into the background. Messier (above) never gracefully extricated himself from his position as the central figure on his teams, probably because his death-stare presence was so riveting that awed teammates couldn't help but fall in behind him.
Messier, whose 1,756 games played is second only to Gordie Howe's, and whose 1,887 career points trail only Wayne Gretzky's, is most celebrated for his guarantee of a win in Game 6 of the 1994 Stanley Cup semifinals--a vow he backed up with a hat trick--on the Rangers' ride to their first Cup since 1940. That might not have been his most stirring work. In Game 4 of the 1990 semis against Chicago, Messier threw himself around the ice in a feral fury, terrorizing the Blackhawks and scoring two goals. The Edmonton Oilers won that pivotal game, and later their only Cup without Gretzky, on the strength of their captain's will.
The NHL will also enter its postlockout era without two defensemen who, in their own ways, were as great and as scary. The New Jersey Devils' Scott Stevens, 41, a hothead as a youngster who matured into a brilliant leader of three Cup-winning teams, was a ferocious bodychecker who put more people to sleep than Goodnight Moon. (A concussion sustained in 2003 led to his retirement). And St. Louis Blues star Al MacInnis, 42, bedeviled by an eye injury in recent years, haunted more than goalies with his 100-mph slapshot, the best since Bobby Hull's. Once in the mid-1980s he sidestepped stumbling Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jerry Korab before unleashing a slapper. As he slid past, Korab, who would have been in MacInnis's line of fire, yelled, "Thanks, man."
In 2008, their first year of eligibility, the Hockey Hall of Fame will say a hearty, "Thanks, man" to all three. --Michael Farber