November 9, 2007
Class of all classesFour players join classy builder
By STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media
A young Mark Messier stood alone in the California sun, behind dark sunglasses, not far from his team bus, not moving.
"What are you doing?" he was asked.
"Waiting," he said, staring into the sun.
"Waiting for what?"
"Waiting to be discovered."
He knew then. Maybe he knew before anyone else did. That he was going to be a star. That he was destined to become the greatest leader hockey has known.
It didn't seem that way when he scored just one goal in his first professional season, playing 48 games for the Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Association. It didn't seem that way when a still growing Messier scored 12 goals in his rookie season and ended up 10th on the first-year Edmonton Oilers in scoring -- 104 points behind this other kid named Gretzky.
That's the rub with this Hall of Fame class of 2007 -- the class of all classes, which gets inducted on Monday. All of them -- Mark Messier, Al MacInnis, Ron Francis, Scott Stevens -- weren't necessarily expected to ever reach this mountain when their careers began.
Messier and MacInnis tripped up in the early years. Stevens was the kind of player who had to endure to be completely appreciated. Francis played his best hockey in one of hockey's most obscure settings: An arena inside a shopping mall in a city that doesn't house NHL games any longer.
This is the Class of 2007: For me, someone who has been chronicling the league for 28 years, this is my class.
Messier's rookie season was my first covering hockey -- albeit junior, where his father Doug, already was something of a legend himself, coaching the St. Albert Saints.
Watching Messier in his early years, you could see the size, you could see the speed, you could see the tenacity, but you wouldn't see all of them together. He was like watching a young colt run. You knew there was something there, you just didn't know exactly what.
In his third season, everything changed. The kid who couldn't score suddenly did. But scoring wasn't what made Mark Messier. He played hockey with a desperate edge, an anger almost, a mean streak few have ever matched.
He didn't just hit people: He used them as board advertising. Hitting from behind, hitting to the head, wasn't so frowned upon in those times: Messier turned both into hostile art forms, his game painting him as fearsome and fearless at precisely the same time.
What a 1-2 punch the Oilers had on their first and second lines. They could kill you with softness or with ferocity.
Gretzky could finesse you into submission and on a line change Messier could have you ready to quit.
The slow beginning for Messier was not unlike the slow beginning for Al MacInnis. I remember meeting MacInnis at the June draft of 1981. He was tall, skinny, awkward, and somewhat uncomfortable, the way almost any 18-year-old seems when they're overdressed and being forced to behave.
He wasn't anybody's choice for stardom after 47 games of major junior hockey, the seventh defenceman picked from a crop where Jim Benning was supposed to be the best.
In his first NHL camp, MacInnis seemed so slight, so physically overwhelmed that writers covering the team made bets on whether he would play in 100 NHL games. (For the record, I said he would).
MacInnis could have lived the life of the Big Shot, the way say some players do today, relying on their one weapon and leaving the rest of their game undeveloped. But he was hungry to learn and his coach, the late Bob Johnson, was just as hungry to teach. And that combination lifted a kid who lacked confidence, if not muscle, into one of the complete, confident and versatile defenders who ever lived.
Not ironically, MacInnis won a Memorial Cup in Kitchener, playing on a junior defence that included his Hall of Fame partner, Scott Stevens. The star of that team -- and the can't miss kid of the future -- was Brian Bellows, a thousand-point scorer himself in the NHL, but not Hall of Fame bound.
Stevens played his best hard-rock hockey in a place he never wanted to be: When he was ordered to New Jersey as compensation for St. Louis signing free agent Brendan Shanahan, he vowed he would never report. He was stubbornly adamant about it during the Canada Cup of 1991.
The move to New Jersey won Stevens three Stanley Cups and a place in the Hall of Fame just as the move to Pittsburgh -- and two Cups playing alongside Mario Lemieux -- took Francis places he otherwise wouldn't have been in Hartford and Carolina. Until then, he was the face of a franchise that moved from odd locale to odd locale, an afterthought until his numbers were added up.
MacInnis shot and Stevens hit and Francis ran the power play and Messier did everything and then some. The Class of 2007, along with the classy builder, Jim Gregory: So many sides of the game, so many areas of strength, and in their own ways, always so much passion.