Judge Ryan Keefer is just like Mark Messier. Without the good hockey playing skills. And the Stanley Cup titles. And Most Valuable Player awards. And the friendship with Wayne Gretzky. He just thinks being bald is the key to everything.
"I promised Mess I wouldn't do this."—Wayne Gretzky, before breaking down in tears announcing his trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988.
I think the reason why Gretzky said the above was that he did not want to embarrass Mark Messier in some strange way. Gretzky's place in history is not only cemented, but is the platinum standard. But it becomes more apparent to me through the years when it comes to leading men into battle (or at the very least, sport), Mark Messier is just as valuable as the man whose biography is the record book of the National Hockey League, but for different reasons.
One in a long list of reasons why the NHL lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season was so detrimental to the sport was that it robbed many of seeing proper farewells for its aging stars, as some quietly went away to retirement or went elsewhere. Messier did manage to leave somewhat publicly, but it didn't seem to appear to be on his terms. Warner Brothers has helped resolve this—as part of a resurrected affiliation with the NHL—by releasing a video dedicated to the man many know as "Mess." This video is certainly better than the previous videos that have been released, and that's in large part because of the focus of this feature. Messier sits down for interviews that are interspersed with his career highlights.
Like many in the US, the only thing that was memorable to me about the Edmonton Oilers teams of the 1980s was that Gretzky was the face of it, and it's justified. Many of us down here were somewhat familiar with Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Grant Fuhr, but very few of us knew the kind of weight that Mark Messier's words carried in a dressing room. He was the guy behind the guy, who knew his role and executed it well. A lot of us down here thought he was (perish the thought) hockey's version of Scottie Pippen, designed to complement the star but not possessing enough to make it on his own if he chose to do so. When Gretzky was traded, the prevailing thought was that the Oilers could be put in cold storage, that they were finished winning Stanley Cups after the four they won in the '80s. The team's final meaningful piece of the championship puzzle was leaving for the States.
But a funny thing happened when I cashed my check at the First National Bank of Assumptions. Even with a cast that many people assumed was done, Messier rallied the troops, and eventually won the Cup, two years removed from "the trade." After that, Messier seemed to find the closure he was looking for in Edmonton, and looked to greener pastures.
Enter Neil Smith, general manager of the New York Rangers, one of the original member teams of the NHL. He heard that Messier was being shopped around in 1991, and with some cash and prospects, decided to pull the trigger on the deal that brought Messier to the Big Apple. Messier was eager for the challenge of bringing a Cup to the city that had not enjoyed one since 1940. It initially didn't go as planned, with the team suffering an early playoff exit one season, and completely missing the playoffs in another. With some notable personnel additions on and off the ice, including coach (and all around "dictator") Mike Keenan, the team managed to get back to the playoffs in 1993-94, and advanced to the Conference finals, where they faced next-door neighbors the New Jersey Devils. The team managed to hold its own initially, but quickly became down three games to two in a best of seven game playoff series. The Rangers went on the road, but the story in both New York and New Jersey was Messier. He said the Rangers would win Game 6 and bring the series back to New York. He carried the team on his back, even when they were down 2-0 midway through the game, spearheading a comeback like no other. The Rangers scored four unanswered goals, Messier scored the last three of those goals, in a performance that fellow New York athlete/prognosticator Joe Namath would have only dreamed to pull off.
Most of the film seems to include footage up to the championship after-party, so to speak, and that's where it cuts off. Now on the plus side, the last decade of Messier's career is included as an additional footage feature on the disc. Messier was forced to leave the Rangers for the Vancouver Canucks, and his return to New York as a visitor was emotional for the fans in attendance and for the center of attention, whose eyes became misty as the Garden played a tribute video on the scoreboard. Messier's flair for the dramatic allowed him to score a goal in that game. And as age began to rob him of his skills, he managed to return to the Rangers for one last round, before calling it quits in 2004, after a career that spanned 25 years. And yes, he scored a goal in his last game to boot.
This video was presumably released to coincide with a Mark Messier Appreciation Night that occurred before a recent Rangers game in January, where the "captain for life" wept openly as he thanked everyone who was a part of his Rangers experience. His number was then retired and raised to the rafters by the team. While it would have been nice to see a retrospective featuring more recent interviews, this look at the future Hall of Famer is comprehensive and well worth the time for fans of the Rangers, Oilers, and hockey in general.
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