by Arien Hughes
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 other’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t use him as the player he was, he couldn’t 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 Messier’s life as a hockey player will not be rivaled for a very long time. His failures will never overshadow the moments of ecstasy he’s 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 team’s he played for. March 31, 2004 is a date when the game of hockey said goodbye to a true great.