SUN Hockey Pool

The kid can play!

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:26 AM ET

NEW YORK -- PART FOUR BANNER NIGHT

In the fourth and final instalment of our series on hockey legend Mark Messier, Sun Media columnist Terry Jones talks to the Moose about having his number raised to the rafters at Rexall Place on Feb. 27.

Messier's No. 11 will hang alongside former Edmonton Oilers teammates Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr and Paul Coffey.

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It's the kid stuff that comes back first.

At the end of the month Mark Messier goes back to Edmonton for his banner-raising, but in New York this past weekend he tried to get in touch with his feelings heading home for what is guaranteed to be an emotional event.

"When I think of my memories of Edmonton, the first thing I think of is my childhood, being raised with small-town values that have carried me well to today," he said over a long lunch.

"I'm thinking of a lot of things right now, like how growing up in Edmonton played such a part in who I became as both a hockey player and a person. I think the environment of Edmonton, even the weather, played a part in who I am today.

SENSE OF COMMUNITY

"I think everything that involves Edmonton, that sense of community there and everything, adds character. There's just something about people from there I can feel when I get together with them again.

"I think the adverse conditions have a lot to do with it, playing hockey outside. It toughens you up.

"There's such a closeness of community there and pride they wear on their sleeves with the Oilers and the Eskimos - being able to say Edmonton is the City of Champions. Having Wayne Gretzky playing there was a big part of that.

"I grew up with such a healthy understanding of all that, going on buses to watch Oil King games and then Oiler games in the WHA since I was 10 and 11 years old."

His dad and his sister say they're starting to think about that kid, too, as they look forward to what is as much a homecoming as it is a banner-raising.

"He was a home kid," said dad Doug.

"He didn't have a lot of friends. He didn't go looking for them. When we moved, he was the last one to find a friend.

"I remember in Grade 6 Mark went to the Kinsmen Field House for a track meet, competed in the 100-yard dash and set a city record. Then he never went back."

Sister Mary-Kay, now his business agent, remembers when their mom took them for swimming lessons.

"For three weeks, Mark wouldn't go into the water. He just sat there on the edge of the pool with his legs in the water.

"Then one day he just dived in and swam from one side of the pool to the other - under water."

Mary-Kay remembers a different Mark Messier than the self-assured legendary leader who wants to be the next general manager of the New York Rangers.

"He was a real shy kid. But, at the same time, he was a little comedian.

"We used to watch the Carol Burnett Show together. He could do Tim Conway. I tried to be Harvey Korman. I did Howard Cosell. He did Muhammad Ali."

He'd one day get to know Muhammad Ali very well through his uncle Larry, one of those unforgettable characters you meet in life who was both a bodyguard for Howard Hughes and a member of Ali's entourage.

Dad Doug told the story about his son as a rookie trying out for the AJHL team he coached.

"He never talked to me for an entire month. Just wouldn't say a thing.

"He'd ride in the car with me home and never talked. He just decided he wasn't going to talk. Not a word. I was his father and he was trying to make the team."

Doug also told the story about coaching his son with the St. Albert Saints in the AJHL.

"He'd been a stickboy for the Spruce Grove Mets for a couple of years and was in his second season. We were losing a game and I was heading into the dressing room to give a talk.

SPEAKING UP

"When I got in there, I realized Mark had already given it. He'd heard me do so many of them he just knew which one I'd use in that situation.

"He'd been in those dressing rooms for almost 100 games a year and he'd heard me do a lot of talks. He absorbed all that."

Doug said he marvels looking back at his son's career.

"I never ever dreamed he could have a career like that. Who could?

"I could see he could be an NHLer. By the time he was 15 I could see that he might be able to make it. But ..."

Mark's perspective isn't a whole lot different.

"It wasn't until my final year in Tier Two, with the St. Albert Saints in the AJHL, that my career accelerated.

"I never really had a year when I dominated or scored a lot of goals.

"I had to figure all that out at the pro level.

"To be drafted by Edmonton to play in the NHL was pretty exciting."

Messier knew something special was going to happen with Wayne Gretzky on the team.

"Right from the start I knew we were going to win Stanley Cups with Wayne. It was up to the rest of us to find out how to be part of that."

First, Messier had to do some figuring himself out. A lot of young players have made trips to the minor leagues, but few quite like No. 11.

"Unlike a lot of things involving me early in my career, that one was so innocent.

"I was having a grand time, enjoying the hockey, the lifestyle of being in the NHL and everything that goes with it. I was soaking it all up. I was travelling to exotic places and leaving no stone unturned.

"I was living at home with my parents in St. Albert. My mom was driving me to the airport. She asked me what airport we were landing in to pick me up when we got home. I said it was the municipal. I thought that meant we'd be leaving from there, too. I looked around when I got in the terminal and it was very evident right away there was nobody there.

"I knew I couldn't make it to the international airport in time for my flight but I made a phone call and was told a ticket would be waiting for me there.

"There was a ticket there, all right. It was a ticket to Houston and the minor leagues.

"That was a real learning experience. Funny what you remember when your career is complete and you're headed home for a banner-raising.

"I remember after our first season, Glen (Sather) bought us all sheepskin coats. He had 'Stanley Cup 1980' stitched in the linings.

"I remember after Wayne went to Los Angeles and I became captain. Peter Pocklington had those golf games for the team with President Gerald Ford. All of a sudden it was my duty to get up at the dinner we'd have after and thank him on behalf of the team for coming.

"All of a sudden I had to get out of myself and get up there, nervous and everything, and ..."

He also remembers the Bruin Inn in St. Albert after winning the Cup.

"It was so innocent. Kevin Lowe and I were meeting up with somebody and said we'd meet him at the old Bruin Inn.

"We had the Cup with us. There were maybe three guys in the bar. The next thing people were making phone calls and there were lineups outside. That was one of my most fond memories of having the Cup. It turned into a huge party in the bar in my hometown."

There are all those other memories, of course.

"Making it into the playoffs in our first year by winning nine of our last 10 and giving Philadelphia all they could handle.

"The impossible dream of sweeping that first-round series against a franchise like the Montreal Canadiens the next year.

"Next year getting beat by Los Angeles.

"Making it to the Stanley Cup final against the Islanders but getting beat pretty handily. Reaching the threshold and leaving with lessons to be learned.

"Coming back the year after that and winning the Cup. Unbelievable experience!

"Winning it again. Losing that Game 7 to Calgary. We had a sense of ownership of the Stanley Cup by that point and it wasn't ours anymore. Coming back and winning it two more times. Losing Wayne. The sadness he wouldn't be there to do it again. Winning it for the fifth time without him. Then realizing it was just over ...

"There are so many memories wrapped in all that. And there were so many great people involved. I have a lot of thinking to do now about what to say about the people of Edmonton, the players, the family, friends and relatives.

"It's all who I became and where I went from being a boy to a man. Right now all that stuff is coming back to me."

He was a tearful Mess when his banner was raised in New York. He says he's now coming to grips with the way it's going to be in Edmonton.

"Even more so," he said. "I understand now how difficult it's going to be."


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