A warrior entered the the National Hockey League in 1979 and would eventually
mature into a conquering general. His combination of skill and grit, rarely seen
before, certainly has not been witnessed since. He was selfless and steadfastly
focused on the ultimate goal of team success. Routinely sacrificing his own
statistics for the good of the team, Mark Messier emerged as the truest and most
indispensable leader on a young brash Edmonton Oilers squad.
An astonishing array of talent lay at the disposal of the coach and all that
he knew was funneled into those young men. They grew so quickly that they came
to dominate the NHL at an age where otherís were barely noticeable among the
aging giants of the game. The backbone of the team and the primary focus of
coach, Glen Sather, was a raw and unbridled Messier. In him, Sather would find
all the elements that he could help forge into one of the greatest players.
Through twenty five seasons, longevity surpassed only once by the indomitable
Gordie Howe, Mark Messier has stood as the pinnacle of professional hockey. The
most complete player to enter a league that would quickly become a place of
specialization. During those years, players could find a place on a team by
being capable at one aspect of the game, with little regard to the other facets
of play. A man could be a scorer, a play maker, pugilist, or defensive
specialist but not have to worry about his deficiencies elsewhere because
undoubtedly there would be another to compensate for his failing.
Never had the game of hockey been so fractured. During the era of fewer than
ten teams, a player had to be good at everything or he could find himself
replaced. Few besides Messier could have survived, perhaps even thrived, in such
a competitive atmosphere. His sole focus was to win, not for himself, but for
the team. So engrossing was this drive, that Mark Messier remained an active
player long after others had fallen to the way side. He retires the last remnant
of the defunct WHA, the final piece of an Oilers dynasty (the last dynasty of
hockey), and the bookend player of his draft class.
While no longer the talent he once was, the statistics he has accumulated
throughout his career are staggering, overshadowed by only one other man
fittingly his friend and former team mate Wayne Gretzky, 1756 Games Played, 694
Goals, 1193 Assists, and 1887 Points. All stand in the upper echelon of the NHL
Record Book and even as his ability began to erode, long after lesser players
began to decline, Mark Messier remained a valuable player on the ice. He scored
consistently and was a testament to the conditioning of the modern athlete.
He was ineffective as a leader in his final seven seasons as his teams failed
to qualify for the post season, but more than that the player became
overshadowed by the myth. While playing, most didnít see Mark Messier 43 year
old, they saw Mark Messier motivator of men and, arguably, the greatest leader
in hockey. There was a breakdown in the structure that maintains hockey teams.
Coaches didnít use him as the player he was, he couldnít acknowledge that he
no longer had the ability to do what he wanted on the ice, and franchises
suffered for it. There was no one on Earth with the right to dictate to Mark
Messier when it was his time to retire, it is his decision alone and he earned
that right. But his career may now be ending on a sad note, made worse by his
encompassing desire to make things right yet seeing his team slide further and
further into disaster.
Mark Messierís life as a hockey player will not be rivaled for a very long
time. His failures will never overshadow the moments of ecstasy heís helped
bring to the cities of Edmonton and New York. And if he does indeed elect to
retire, he will pass into history, a mixture of the cocky youngster that entered
and the weathered and worn Captain who exits the National Hockey League. Some
will resent his time, others will celebrate it, but no one can deny the impact
that Messier had on the game and the teamís he played for. March 31, 2004 is a
date when the game of hockey said goodbye to a true great.
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