How Messier emerged from Gretzky’s shadow

His career began in Gretzky’s shadow, but Mark Messier made sure that it didn’t end that way. (Steve Babineau/Getty)

In Edmonton they called him ‘The Moose,’ a testament to his power and perseverance. In New York, he was elevated to ‘Messiah’ for leading the Rangers to the promised land. Whatever the nickname or the city, Mark Messier was always a leader, even in those early years in Edmonton when the “C” was sewn onto that other guy’s sweater. Such was the power of a man whose menacing eyes could at once intimidate his opponents and inspire his teammates to follow him out of the dressing room and onward to glory.

A six-time Stanley Cup winner who capped a 25-year career with a goal (his 694th) in his 1,756th and final NHL game, finishing second only to Wayne Gretzky on the all-time point sheet, and to Gordie Howe for most games played. He is the only athlete in NHL history to have captained two different teams to Stanley Cup wins. Impressive stats, even for the six-foot-two, 211-lb. Albertan who more or less rolled off an assembly line with the body and soul of a hockey player on a cold January day back in 1961.

He had the fortune (and misfortune) of coming into the game at the same time as Gretzky, and wound up skating in the shadow of ‘The Great One’ early in his career, taking his place with the Indianapolis Racers when Gretzky was elevated to the World Hockey Association and the Oilers. Messier caught up with Gretzky in 1979 when he was drafted an unceremonious 48th overall.

The son of a Western Hockey League brawler, he was a power forward who prowled the ice like a shark in a pond. He was mean, gritty and dangerous. He would elbow opponents in the side of the head, drop his gloves and punch them in the face. He would stop them cold with his stare, then steal the puck and blast it inside the blocker-side post of his opponents’ net. Gretzky may have held court behind the goal, but out front, that was Messier’s territory. He would breeze down the wing, crossing the blueline en route to his personal shooting gallery at the top of the circle, gliding on his left foot and kicking off with his right, as if to kick-start an old Harley, jetting the puck into its place in the far side of the net.

Though Gretzky’s greatness relegated Messier to a supporting role, he stood ready to lead the Oilers on the rare occasion when No. 99 stumbled. And when the Great One was traded, Messier lifted the entire Oilers franchise onto his shoulder pads and carried it to another Stanley Cup. Then he too headed south, and did it all again as captain of the Rangers.

The numbers he posted have gone down in history, but it’s the tales of glory that will forever define Messier’s status as one of the greatest leaders in all of sport.

April 8, 1981
Montreal Forum, Montreal

Game one of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The upstart Oilers duel with the still-dominant Montreal Canadiens. Messier sets the tone early when he cocks his stick in the air like a baseball bat, threatening to bash it into Larry Robinson’s teeth. It’s a warning to Robinson and the rest of the Habs to stay away from him and his teammates, including No. 99. The Oilers later upset the Habs, sweeping them from the playoffs.

May 17, 1983
Nassau Coliseum, Long Island

The aging and banged-up New York Islanders sweep the Oilers in their first appearance in the Stanley Cup final. Following the last game, Messier emerges from the shower in the Oilers’ dressing room with nothing but a towel around his waist. He watches a TV interview in which Islanders coach Al Arbour declares his men beat the Oilers on character. Messier rips the towel from his waist and snaps it at the screen, vowing in front of his teammates that the Islanders will never again beat him for the Cup.

May 15, 1984
Northlands Coliseum, Edmonton

In a repeat showdown with the Islanders, Gretzky, the Oilers captain, finds himself shut down early in the series. No bother. Messier takes his place. Trailing the Islanders by two goals in game three, he storms down the ice and rips one past the Islanders’ goalie. The Oilers awaken behind him and go on to win 7–2. Four nights later, they capture their first Stanley Cup, and Messier collects the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

May 24, 1990
Boston Garden, Boston

Messier leads the Oilers back to the Cup after posting his highest regular-season tally of 129 points, winning the Lester Pearson Award and the Hart Trophy along the way. The Oilers entered the playoffs ranked fifth in the NHL and were nearly eliminated in the first round. Messier rallies the team in the locker room, then steamrolls over Gretzky and his Los Angeles Kings in the second round. In game four of the conference final against the Chicago Blackhawks, Messier scores two goals (one while taking a stick to the throat) and assists on two more to even up the series. In Boston, he does what few thought possible: hoists the Stanley Cup above his head without Gretzky by his side. His coach, John Muckler, later says: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of the leaders that I’ve ever had do it as well as Mark did that particular year.”

May 25, 1994
Brendan Byrne Arena, New Jersey

On the brink of elimination, Messier guarantees to the press that his Rangers will win game six of the 1994 Eastern Conference final and return to Madison Square Garden to finish off the New Jersey Devils. After 40 minutes of play, the Rangers are down 2–1. Early in the third period, Messier ties the game by beating Martin Brodeur with a backhander. Minutes later, he picks up a rebound and pushes the Rangers into the lead. In the closing minutes, he scores an empty-netter. Having fulfilled his own prophecy, he completes his last drive for the Cup with the winning goal in game seven of the final against the Vancouver Canucks. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declares him ‘Mr. June’ for having returned the Cup to Manhattan after 54 years.

Oct. 3, 1997
Yoyogi Arena, Tokyo

Before a game in Tokyo at the start of the season—Messier’s first as a Canuck—long-time captain Trevor Linden hands over leadership to Messier out of respect. “This allows Mark to assert himself at what he does best,” Linden says. “He’s just what this team needs.” Messier returns to New York three years later, and Rangers captain Brian Leetch follows Linden’s lead, handing the captaincy to Messier upon his return.

March 31, 2004
Madison Square Garden, New York

In his final game, Messier scores one last goal in what was ultimately a losing effort against the Buffalo Sabres. Following the game, players from both teams stay on the ice and tap their sticks, applauding as Messier takes a lap, tears in his eyes, waving to fans, some holding signs that read “Bless the Mess” and “Our Captain forever.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.