The crying game

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 2:03 PM ET

For the others, there was no previous experience. They did it cold.

Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr and Paul Coffey came to Edmonton for their banner raisings without a practice, with no trial run.

It's different with Mark Messier. He's already been through his banner raising once in New York.

It'll be interesting to compare them when his No. 11 is raised to the rafters in Rexall Place tomorrow night.

Heading into the first ceremony in New York he sounded so confident and comfortable with the week ahead.

CAREER CYCLE

"I'm looking at it now as a celebration of my career and the reunion of people who put me in the position to have my sweater retired," he told me before heading to New York.

He said he thought he had his head wrapped around it.

"It's something you have to go through. It's part of the whole cycle of a career. I'm not the first one who has done it."

He knew New York was going to be the first half of his banner-raising double-header but he figured it would be the easy one.

"In some regards this will be easier than when it happens in Edmonton. I've been lucky because all the people out here see me as a New York Ranger and all the people in Edmonton see me as an Oiler. And that's the way I want it.

"I'm looking forward to coming to Edmonton and being in this situation as well. Paul Coffey said his was awesome."

I kidded back then that the New York banner raising will be practice for Edmonton.

"There's no dress rehearsal for this," he laughed.

Indeed.

He was a Mess.

Messier was only 14 words into the press conference the day before the ceremony when he broke down.

"Whoeeew," he exhaled and stepped back, trying to compose himself.

Messier had simply started by mentioning circling the date on the calendar when he retired.

"I thought I had it under control, but ...

"Whoeeew," the air rushed out of him again and he went to his handkerchief.

"Trying to condense the last 26 years into 10 minutes on one night ..."

His eyes were wet and there was emotion like you imagined when Babe Ruth said goodbye or when Lou Gehrig, about to lose his life to the disease that has since carried his name, told New York at home plate in Yankee Stadium with the P.A. system echo, "Tonight ... I feel like ... the luckiest man ... on the face of the Earth."

Messier hadn't even got going yet. And this was just the press conference, not the big night where his New York Rangers No. 11 would be hung from the rafters at Madison Square Garden.

There weren't 19,000 fans cheering in the background.

"Obviously this is difficult."

He stopped and composed himself again, reaching for a glass of water.

"I said coming in here that I wondered what the odds would be in Las Vegas of how long it would be before I start crying. I guess everybody made money on that one."

He started again.

"I'm looking at it as a celebration ..."

Again he stopped.

"Can't you tell this is a celebration?" he said, as he tried to break up the gathering while he was breaking up.

As he went on, you totally understood why Messier held his retirement press conference earlier this season by conference call, why he wore dark sunglasses for Wayne Gretzky's going-away game in New York.

GARDEN LETTER

Messier decided to read a letter he wrote to fans for the game-day magazine.

"Whoeeew," the air came out again.

"I can't even get the title out."

Again he started.

"Letter to the Garden ..."

Again he broke down and went to the hankie.

"Gee, maybe I should have kept playing," he said, coming through with another one-liner after he'd composed himself again. "Letter to the Garden Faithful," he finally managed to get out.

Reading the letter, he herked and jerked some more but managed to work his way through it, talking about getting the phone call from Rangers GM Neil Smith telling him after five Stanley Cups that he'd been traded from the Oilers to the Rangers.

He mentioned the night they made him captain in an on-ice ceremony to start the home season and how the Garden's crowd roared.

He remembered saying, "I will die trying to bring a Stanley Cup to the fans of New York."

Messier took yet another moment to get it together and talk about ending the 54 years between Ranger titles in 1994.

"It's important to talk about all the memories without tearing up," he said.

"Shocker!" he one-lined it again of tearing up again when he said it.

He thanked his mother, father, brother and sisters for making him a better player and better person and then spoke to Glen Sather.


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