SUN Hockey Pool

Follow my leader

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:49 AM ET

NEW YORK -- It was the evening before the championship game, and Bill Comrie guaranteed victory.

Oh, the New York Post didn't come out in the morning with the front-page headline "We Will Win."

And it wasn't exactly the same scene in Madison Square Garden here yesterday as it was that night over in New Jersey after Mark Messier had guaranteed victory prior to Game 6 of the East Division final series back in 1994. The crowd was family and friends and there was only one sportswriter accredited to cover the game.

Like that Game 6, the New York Rangers, wearing white, got down early. But despite the efforts of Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson playing with Comrie, they couldn't come back. They ended up losing 6-5 to the other New York Rangers, wearing blue, with Mike Keenan behind the bench and Adam Graves and Jeff Beukeboom in the lineup.

But legendary Rangers anthem singer John Amirante sang the Star Spangled Banner before the game, they were playing in the world's most famous arena and the winners carried the Cup around the ice when it was over.

It was the highlight of the four-day Mark Messier leadership camp.

Invited to attend the event in which 36 participants paid $11,111 each to be involved, it was an amazing experience and showed a side of Mark Messier I'd never seen before as the countdown begins to his No. 11 banner-raising in Edmonton.

This isn't the first fantasy camp in the history of sport. Or in hockey.

Wayne Gretzky has one that is going into its fifth year.

The difference between the two, Messier jokes, is that they both set the price off their playing numbers.

"Gretz's fee is only $9,999. Mine is $11,111," said No. 11 of No. 99.

But there are bigger differences than that.

Messier is known as the greatest leader in hockey history, if not all of sports history. But it's not just using that for a name. It really is a leadership camp, with a huge component involving sessions prior to going on the ice every day.

"The amazing thing to everybody is that Mark spends about 14 hours a day with you," said former Edmonton Oil King Craig Styles, who came to camp this year despite having a separated shoulder.

"I've talked to somebody who went to Michael Jordan's camp and was told, 'He's there for the first day and you don't see him again until the last day' and that was it.

"It really is a dynamic feeling being around Mark Messier.

"There is an aura around him. And the environment is so friendly and so personal. It's full-on involvement with Mark Messier," added Styles, an Oil King from 1971 to 1972 who went on to play with the University of Alberta Golden Bears for three years.

"Everybody wants to identify with him."

Comrie, the man who created the Brick Warehouse empire, father of former Edmonton Oiler and current Ottawa Senator Mike Comrie, said he's given a lot of money in his life to charities, but to have these experiences with Messier and Gretzky at their camps is fabulous.

"What a great job Mark does for his charity," he said of the Tomorrow's Children's Fund.

"Usually so much money is taken out in these deals that not a great deal ends up with the charity. But that's not true with Mark or Wayne. I just love the idea of a hockey guy from Edmonton making such a huge difference in New York."

Boyd Jeffery is a born-and-raised Edmontonian who went to Los Angeles seeking fame in the entertainment industry and ended up making his fortune in the real estate business. He has been to three of Gretzky's camps and two of Messier's.

"With Gretzky's it's just such a huge honour to be with Wayne. But Messier's is more fun. And you get 100% of him.

"He really puts a lot of himself into it and the leadership part of it makes a real big difference. There's just so much to take away from it."

Messier said he wanted to create something unique.

"I didn't want to do just a fantasy camp. I wanted to do this, where everybody involved could leave a little bit better person and leader and still have good times, a few beers and a lot of laughs. I think the people who attended this go away with more self-awareness of who they are as a person.

"I think this is a lot more stimulating than to just sit around and tell stories. And it fits in so well with what we're doing with the Leadership Award in the NHL."

Jim Jerome, the K-Rock morning man in Edmonton, says both events have the same thing in common once you get past the formats.

"You get to hear a lot of off-side stories you'll never hear as a fan."

Glenn Anderson, who has worked three of the Gretzky camps, says he couldn't believe what he was hearing while working Messier's inaugural one here.

"He stood up there and I couldn't believe the stuff he was telling that went on behind the scenes with that '94 team. I mean I'm saying, 'You can't tell that one.' I'm just not believing what I'm hearing."

The campers all receive both home and away uniforms, including even the hockey pants, a hockey bag, autographed items including posed on-ice pictures of them with Messier plus action shots and a whole load of other items.

They'll also end up on TV with a one-hour special planned for Versus in the U.S. and likely TSN in Canada.

At the state-of-the-art New York Rangers' and Knicks' training centre in Tarrytown, New York, for 10 hours the first two days, the camp featured a Super Bowl/poker party at an old speakeasy you can't find without explicit directions - one that is frequented by the famous.

Rick Matishak of Sherwood Park, president of "Inspired To Action," a corporate leadership seminar specialist who worked with the Vancouver Canucks when Messier played there, was a big part of the off-ice program.

"If anybody had told me when I was watching Mark and all those guys with those Stanley Cups in Edmonton that in 2007 I'd do a leadership camp with them in New York ... I know this isn't called a fantasy camp, but to me this is a fantasy," he said.

There were plenty of Edmonton connections.

Jerome worked the camp as a comedic presence, as he did last year and for all five years of the Gretzky camp.

"They're totally different. Gretzky's is much more a social event. Golfing. A lot of away-from-the-ice stuff. Guys will pay $9,999 to hear him read the phone book.

"The one thing that's the same is that they all spend so much time with the guys. They'll think it's over for the day and, typical Oilers, they'll both say, 'Let's go out and have a beer.' They get it.

"One year at the Gretzky camp we had a guy poop in his hockey pants.

"Seriously. Gretzky set him up for a goal. He scored a goal assisted by Wayne Gretzky. He came back to the bench and actually @#$% himself."

The campers come from all over.

Like Gord Dennis, a car dealer from Guelph, Ont., who has gone to all the Gretzky camps and both Messier camps.

"This one is far more laid back and one-on-one," said Dennis. "But they're both great."

Why would a guy who could afford to spend the weekend going to the Super Bowl spend $11,111 to be part of this?

"I think we all have different reasons. I didn't play hockey for 21 years but when I turned 50 I decided to make up for lost time.

"This one involves such a team atmosphere. It's remarkable how that works in such a short span. Sixteen of us returned from last year," said Dennis.

Then there are the stories.

"You get a lot of back room stuff you don't read in Sports Illustrated or The Hockey News."

Julie Kim, a New York design artist and sculptor, was the only female in camp both years.

"My very first game of hockey was in Madison Square Garden. I decided to start at the top," she laughed.

"I was always a huge fan of Mark Messier. At the first camp, I could hardly skate. At the first camp, I didn't know what I'd get out of it. I came, obviously, because I wanted to meet Mark and meet the pros. I went away with very valuable lessons in how I see myself. I got so much out of the first one I decided to see what the second one could offer.

"After the first one I joined a team and started skating a lot. In the first one I was on the losing team. I wanted to come back and win the Captain's Cup."

She won it here yesterday. She carried the Cup. Priceless.

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TOMORROW: MESSIER'S LIFE AFTER HOCKEY


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