99 calculates 11

TERRY JONES, EDMONTON SUN

, Last Updated: 7:33 AM ET

TORONTO -- Eleven days before No. 11's banner is raised to the rafters, Wayne Gretzky called a conference call yesterday to begin the final countdown.

It has been going on for weeks already, but with Gretzky on the line it was like the beginning of the 11 Days Of Mark Messier.

Gretzky made it a largely exclusive opportunity for mostly Edmonton media members.

He laughed about the idea of an over-under on whether Messier will be a mess again, as he was in New York when the tears flowed for his banner raising in a game against the Oilers at Madison Square Garden last year.

"Probably isn't one. He's probably already cried thinking about it."

With that Gretzky reflected back.

"We were a bunch of kids and, silly as it sounds, I remember Glen Sather at centre ice talking about working hard and saying, 'Do you guys not realize that one day your sweaters will be hanging from the rafters?'

"All these guys now are going up there, after what Glen kind of predicted. He told us what enjoyment we'd get, that one day the rewards of all that would be just incredible."

Gretzky added that he thinks there are a couple more who deserve to follow himself, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr, Paul Coffey and now Messier to the rafters, obviously referring to Glenn Anderson and Kevin Lowe.

First impressions the day he first watched the kid from St. Albert with the Oilers?

"I'd seen him earlier. I had a little bit of an advantage. We played against him in Cincinnati," he said of the final year of the WHA when Gretzky joined the Oilers and Messier played with the Stingers.

"But my first impression was the same as everybody else. I was shocked we could get a guy with his skating ability and size in the third round," he said of the merger draft. "He had so much ability and was only 18 years old.

"As a younger guy, he was always unselfish as a teammate. He had the ability to be excited to see another guy do well. You'd think, leaving the game, Mark was the guy who had the hat trick."

Messier didn't have big numbers that first year, but he made an impact with the mean, physical side to his game.

"That never shocked me. Mark inherited that physical meanness because of his dad," he said of Doug, a former Edmonton Flyer.

"You either have that or don't have that.

"He was so strong. He played the way he did to get room he needed while he worked hard developing finesse and skills."

Gretzky felt the physical side of Messier himself when, after being sold to Los Angeles, No. 11 went out of his way to deliver a message to his Rangers teammates by clobbering Gretzky early in a playoff series.

"That one didn't surprise me at all.

"What surprised me is that just before the hit, he told me to hold on. So I did."

Gretzky said moving Messier from left wing to centre made it all happen.

"It changed our franchise. It really did.

"Glen called us in and told us he was moving Mark to centre.

"Watching the Canadiens and Islanders over the years, he said we had to be better in the middle. There was never downtime for the opposition.

"It was a decision Glen made. Mark wanted to play centre and accepted that responsibility."

He said the move really showed playing against Calgary.

"It changed the whole complexion. Calgary was a big team. They had Joel Otto against Mess. It made it physically easier for me. I didn't have to get pounded by Otto."

Gretzky said he doesn't think the impression he left on Edmonton and the one Messier left differs a lot.

"I once said he's a son of Edmonton and I was sort of an adopted son.

"We were different sort of players. But we were players who wanted to win championships.

"It is always amazing to me to hear about players who can't get along, who have egos too big. In 10 years, that issue was foreign to us.

"We pushed each other to be better and be beneficial to the hockey club."

No. 11 should go right beside No. 99.


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