Messier recalls being denied his Olympic dream

In a legendary career with very few of them, one of Mark Messier's greatest disappointments was not representing Canada more often often on international ice.

We scratch our head at the omission of Joe Thornton, statistically the NHL’s best setup man right now, from Team Canada. Our heart breaks for Martin St. Louis, who could have waxed Steve Yzerman’s car and folded his whites and still wouldn’t have done enough to earn a flight to Sochi.

But the all-time Olympic snub is neither Thornton, nor St. Louis, nor Bobby Ryan, nor Jiri Hudler, nor anyone from this year.

Mark Messier owns six Stanley Cup rings, a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and the dubious distinction as the greatest eligible player to have never won an Olympic medal. Moreover, the NHL’s all-time leader in leadership never even been invited to the Games.

Consider today’s media and instant-feedback technology. Think about how small it makes our country feel and how sharply and rapidly criticism can sting.

“What would it be like today when Mark Messier didn’t make Team Canada in 1998?” Wayne Gretzky put to Sportsnet The Fan 590 on Tuesday. “It would be outrage in Canada.”

Gretzky did play on that Bobby Clarke-chosen Nagano squad, which failed to medal in the first year the modern NHL broke schedule to allow its players to participate in the tournament.

When the 1998 roster was announced, Messier – the only man to captain two separate NHL franchises to championships — was coming off a season in which he scored 84 points in 71 games and had led the New York Rangers deep into the post-season for the fourth consecutive year. Yet Clarke, attracted by his defensive prowess and knack for face-offs, took Rob Zamuner instead. Rob freaking Zamuner. This actually happened.

“Without question, Mess should be on the team,” Gretzky told the Toronto Sun back when the ’98 roster was announced. “With the type of intense atmosphere and the kind of pressure that is going to be involved, there is no doubt in my mind he belongs. How could Canada send a team over there without him?”

At the time of his snub, Messier, then in his first season as a Vancouver Canuck, took the announcement in stride, encouraging his fellow Canadians to root for the players who made the cut.

But never becoming an Olympian is something Messier still thinks about. As a kid cutting his blades into the ice of St. Albert, Alta., young Messier “absolutely” carried an Olympic dream.

“One of my greatest disappointments was not playing more hockey over in Europe. I only played in one world championships in Sweden,” Messier tells Sportsnet. The Moose helped lead Canada to a silver medal in the 1989 IIHF world championships, but the experience paled in comparison to the global stage the Olympics offers.

“Growing up, the Olympics were a huge deal in our house—summer and winter. It was a time we all gathered around the TV. It wasn’t just watching the sports, but they did such a great job of bringing in the athletes and showing what they endured to get to that point. The sacrifices they made. A lot of them were working fathers or mothers who had to quit their day jobs, or work two jobs and train. Incredible stories,” Messier says. “My closest experience to that was the Canada Cups back in ’84, ’87, ’90 and ’96 [the latter a World Cup]. I played in four of those and ended up winning three of them. That was my real opportunity to play international hockey.”

In 38 games of international competition, Messier racked up 32 points and a healthy heaping of respect for the emergence of hockey talent abroad. The 52-year-old rattles off Germany, Sweden, Finland, Italy and France as countries that have stepped up their game.

“The other countries have definitely closed the gap on us. Before, Canadians had much a style of their own. Europeans didn’t really play the same kind of style, and the U.S. didn’t have their ducks in a row. Now we’ve seen the U.S. take incredible strides,” Messier says.

“Take a country like Switzerland. Their whole youth movement in hockey has grown exponentially over the last 20 years. With all the resources poured into their youth programs, you’re starting to see the results of that 20 years later with their success at the international level,” Messier says. The image of Anaheim goaltender Jonas Hiller going for his 13th consecutive victory this weekend pops in your head. “Russia just built 300 more arenas in the country in the last year or two to rekindle their hockey youth programs and get back to being the powerhouse they once were.”

Canada, Messier argues, must put forth a similar effort into growing a game that cannot be taken for granted.

Since leaving his post with as special assistant to Rangers president Glen Sather in June and being turned down for the team’s head coaching position, Messier has focused his efforts on grassroots hockey. He’ll be integral to a group bringing a nine-rink ice complex to the Bronx, and he took a spokesman role with Hockey Canada and Bauer’s Grow the Game — an initiative aiming to add 1 million new Canadian players by 2022. If successful, the program will approximately double the growth rate of hockey participation amongst Canada’s youth.

With nine of 10 Canadian parents not enrolling their children in hockey, Bauer and Hockey Canada commissioned an independent survey of 875 non-hockey-playing families in Ontario and Nova Scotia to find out why.

The main reasons for avoiding hockey? It’s too expensive, it’s too dangerous, and it’s not very fun. Yet 75 per cent of the non-hockey families said they would consider enrolling their child in hockey.

“The most surprising one for us is that hockey was perceived as not fun,” says Kevin Davis, president and CEO of Bauer. “You get a kid on ice and they have a good first experience, they’ll be hockey players for life.”

Of course, Bauer has a vested interest in youth participation in the sport. But so do the future members and supporters of Team Canada.

Messier thinks back to his earliest experiences with the game. Almost every kid he knew played. He had a cluster of friends who never signed up for house league or rep teams but could be counted on to lace them up for a game of shinny on a cold winter day.

“Most if not all of my friends played some type of hockey, which is interesting,” Messier says. “What a great life lesson shinny is, because of the kids’ ability to make the rules and design the game, to make it fun for themselves. The ability to include all different ages of kids into one game. Those are all serious life lessons that will serve these kids well as they get older. That’s what we try to capture and talk about—why hockey is such a great vehicle to create good citizens.”

If Canada can widen the talent pool from which it plucks its national roster (thus multiplying the number of Olympic snubs), the country will stay atop the hockey pyramid, Messier believes.

The 2018 Olympics will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, another country, Messier points out, that is now developing hockey at the grassroots level. But the NHL is much more interested in bringing back the World Cup as an international showcase and not interrupting its regular season to send players to a tournament being waged in a time zone nine hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.

The greatest Olympic snub thinks it will be a mistake, globally, for the NHL to snub the Olympics.

“[Canadians] would get over it because we have the NHL, and we have the best players playing in our league and we have great hockey to watch. But globally it’s very important to sell the game – which is another responsibility we have as the NHL. If we want to grow the game and get kids involved around the world, the Olympics is an excellent platform to do that,” Messier says.

“It’s a chance for us to compete against the best in the world. We feel as Canadians we want to be known as the best in the world.

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