A man to remember

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:41 AM ET

Remember the night Mark Messier kind of, sort of, waved goodbye in New York?

Everybody in the hockey media does because we didn't know what to do about it. Was that it? Was he saying goodbye? Or was it a just-in-case? Or what?

It's ironic that the night Messier waved goodbye was March 31. Gordie Howe's birthday. He scored his 18th goal of the season to join Howe in the top 10 of all-time goal scorers at the ripe old age of 43.

It would be the last of so many memories.

I remember the Oilers' first year in the NHL when Glen Sather demoted Messier to the Houston Apollos of the Central Hockey League and hit him with a big fine for disciplinary reasons. Messier had missed a plane, missed a bus and been late for a practice.

"I think he'll make an excellent pro once he learns how to catch buses on time, be at the airport and discipline himself," said Sather. "He has to learn hockey is the most important thing in his life right now and make the sacrifices."

LEARNED HIS LESSON

Messier learned. He learned so well, people would later call him the greatest leader in the history of hockey.

I remember the kid sitting on the bench in Long Island as the Oilers played the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time, and leading 'The Edmonton Boys Choir' in singing 'Here we go Oilers, here we go.'

"It was Messier who started it," said Paul Coffey when No. 11 claimed innocence.

I remember when he registered a 50-goal season in the Oilers' third year in the league.

Messier set an NHL record for artistic impression as he turned the entire ice surface into his own personal dance floor. It was like he was a balloon and somebody had just let out the air.

He went from one end of the ice to the other with his arms and legs out of control.

"I just lost it," he said. "It was such a feeling of exhilaration. I just lost control of everything and my body and I took a trip together. If the game had been played on a river, I'd have skated all the way like that to the next province."

I remember when he won his first Stanley Cup. He was crying. Not only had he won the Cup but he was such a force in the final they gave him the Conn Smythe trophy too.

"Messier's goal in Game 3 turned us into the kind of team we had to be," said Coffey.

I don't remember how many times I wrote down the same words from an opposition coach, the ones used by Jacques Demers when Messier put away the Red Wings one year in a conference final: "Too much Messier."

'THE LOOK'

I remember players talking about Messier getting 'The Look' before a game and knowing all would be well.

"He just looks at you," Kent Nilsson marvelled in his brief time as an Oiler in which Messier challenged him to take his game where it had never gone before.

"I'll tell you, he has a helluva look. One of those looks at you and you know you better get going. He's the guy who gets everybody going."

I'll remember Messier hitting Gretzky in the first game after No. 99 left for Los Angeles, and half-way through the series confessed going against The Great One "was the toughest thing I've ever had to do."

And I'll remember a year later Messier leading the Oilers to their last Cup, without Gretzky, and the two forgotten years which followed where he carried the team on his back to the final four.

I'll remember being called to visit his parents' home on Christmas Eve when Mark sat with father Doug and told me they'd come to the end of the line with owner Peter Pocklington.

I'll remember sitting on the bench at Maple Leaf Gardens after a Canada Cup practice when he gave me the story. He'd asked to be traded.

"I'd say I've probably played my last game as an Oiler. I always wanted to stay and play out my career in Edmonton but the way things have gone, I can't honestly say I want to stay."

I'll remember how fast he found out that he and Manhattan were made for each other. Of all the Oiler greats, Gretzky, Kevin Lowe, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, Messier may be the only one who will be remembered first for another team than the one he won five Stanley Cups with in Edmonton.

As a Ranger, the 1994 Stanley Cup with so many of his ex-Oiler teammates, will dominate all memories.

The guarantee against New Jersey and Mark Mess-iah bringing the Rangers back from the dead in the Eastern Final in ' 94 camefirst.

COMES THROUGH

"Now I've seen it all," said Anderson of Messier's three-goal, four-point night to bring the Rangers back from 2-0 to win 4-2 after guaranteeing the win the day before.

"He's done a lot of big things and this wasn't the biggest. But he made it a lot bigger with the things he told the papers."

He willed the Rangers to win.

Messier, who went the last seven seasons of his 25 in the NHL without playing a playoff game, will always be viewed as the prototype of a playoff player.

I remember the Heritage Classic and Messier on the phone when he decided he had to join all his retired teammates in the MegaStars game in front of 60,000 fans in Commonwealth Stadium.

"It's about the players. It's about being on the ice in Edmonton. For me it could be the last time."

As it turned out, it was.


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