Mark Messier Hangs up His Skates

HE SPOKE OF HOCKEY as a game that consumed him, but the truth is Mark MESSIER was the one doing the feasting. He ate up opponents and he fed off pressure and when his number ascends to the rafters of Madison Square Garden next January, the honour alone won't seem sufficient.

Mark Messier Hangs up His Skates

HE SPOKE OF HOCKEY as a game that consumed him, but the truth is Mark MESSIER was the one doing the feasting. He ate up opponents and he fed off pressure and when his number ascends to the rafters of Madison Square Garden next January, the honour alone won't seem sufficient. Some stars dominate their sports, some advance them. Few embody them the way Messier did.

It's been easy to forget that these last few years. As his career wound down in Vancouver, then during a second stint with the New York Rangers, the man whose stare alone could wither rivals had inarguably shrunk. He left the ice in Manhattan to muted elegies in April 2004, having lost 4-3 to the lowly Buffalo Sabres and, worse, missed the playoffs for a fourth straight year. As NHL training camps opened last week, the exit cues were impossible to ignore. Most of Messier's contemporaries had left the game. His opponents had morphed into 230-lb. behemoths, making even him look small. At 44, the best offer he could attract came from the Edmonton Oilers - a victory lap with the team of his glory years, probably at minimum salary.

So Messier, never one for sentimentality, eschewed the obligatory farewell news conference last week and dispatched himself in a conference call. "No one wants to see a blubbering idiot at the podium," he said. And with that, it was over.

Sad, because on numbers alone you could make a case for "Moose" as the second-best player of all time. He checks out with 1,887 regular-season points, 970 fewer than his pal Wayne Gretzky, and 37 more than Gordie Howe, who sits at No. 3. He was twice named the league's most valuable player, he played in 14 All-Star Games, and is the only player to captain Stanley Cup teams in two different cities. But no statistic fully captures his strengths. Messier combined talent, intimidation and inner fire in a way no one - not Lemieux, not Gretzky - ever did.

Consider a moment from Messier lore: it's 1978 and, at 17, he's broken into the World Hockey Association with the Cincinnati Stingers. In a game against Glen Sather's Edmonton Oilers, he strikes up a fight with Oiler veteran Dennis Sobchuk and, in Sather's words, "beats the crap" out of the guy. Sather drafts him after the WHA folds. Or how about the game in the 1990 Stanley Cup semifinals, when Messier practically hoisted the Gretzky-less Oilers onto his shoulders, scoring twice and setting up the other goals in a 4-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. "I don't think I'd ever seen anybody take control of a game like that before," Steve Larmer, the Blackhawks' sniper, would later remark. "When he gets that look in his eye, there's no stopping him."

The "look" - a kind of homicidal glare - became legendary, and fear was Messier's smart bomb. But his genius was to leaven his rage with an intuitive mastery of the game, to become the multi-dimensional "power forward" so many of today's coaches venerate. Velvet hands, a hair-trigger release and blistering speed were a rare combination in Messier's era. Goaltenders were paralyzed knowing he could just as soon fire a laser in mid-stride as barrel toward the net, ice chips flying.

His potential as a leader took longer to emerge. With Gretzky around to absorb the public pressure in Edmonton, Messier remained Mr. Friday Night a couple of years longer than he should have, tear-assing around town in his $60,000 Porsche and partying into the night. Only after his friend left did he become a captain of Shermanesque proportions, a trench boss who could frighten goals out of under-producing teammates like, say, Kent Nilsson. Messier's move to New York completed the transformation: he led the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years, while making a seamless entry to the Manhattan social scene. When Gretzky skated his last game, also as a Ranger, Messier joined him at centre ice wearing pinstripes, an azure silk shirt and turquoise shades. It might have been Gretzky's night. But New York was Messier's town.

Why, then, does his own hurrah feel so anti-climactic? Perhaps because Messier treated retirement as surrender. Or because, for some time now, he's seemed smaller than the sport he once towered over. While it's hard to imagine him facing life after hockey with anything less than the full force of his personality, it's equally tough to picture him hanging up that antiquated, centurion-style helmet. There will be sweater retirements and Hall of Fame ceremonies, of course. Perhaps then Messier will shed a tear. Heaven knows his fans will.

Maclean's September 26, 2005