Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Messier emotional as Rangers ready to retire number
NEW YORK -- Mark Messier stood at the podium in front of family, friends and dozens of pictures of his entire hockey life.
Messier got emotional during a photo and video tribute to his career.
This was the day the six-time Stanley Cup champion has dreaded since he decided to end his 25-year NHL career in September.
On skates in "The World's Most Famous Arena," Messier never felt out of place or uncomfortable. But dressed in a suit while making his first in-person declaration that his brilliant career was over, the former captain couldn't get through the first sentence of his speech without tears.
"Maybe I should've kept playing," his said, in between wipes of his eyes with a cloth napkin. "It would've solved a lot of this."
All the memories were staring him in his face, his personal life intertwined with his professional world.
The NHL lockout that canceled all of last season made the gap from his last game to this day nearly two years wide. Still, it hurt to actually say goodbye.
Once the league was back on its feet, Messier announced on a conference call that it would go on without him. He called it a "young man's game" and said he was happy and content with his decision to move on in his life.
Four months later, he was back in the Garden ready for a two-day party that will culminate Thursday in a pregame ceremony before the Rangers face the Edmonton Oilers.
"I'm looking at this as a celebration. Can't you tell I'm celebrating," he asked with a laugh while dabbing his eyes again.
Messier was joined on the dais by Rangers general manager Glen Sather, who has helped shape Messier's career.
Sather was his coach, his general manager and his father figure in Edmonton. He was also the man who sent him to New York when Messier felt his time with the Oilers was over after five Stanley Cup titles in seven years.
"Other than my dad, no one believed in me more and did more for me as a person and player," Messier said while choking back a big rush of tears.
Sather was also the person responsible for bringing Messier back to New York after the center left the Rangers for a three-year stint in Vancouver.
The longtime executive stared straight ahead while being praised but didn't dare glance over at Messier.
"I get pretty emotional, too," Sather said. "Maybe because I'm a little bit older now I'm able to control it."
Although he spent 10 seasons on Broadway, nothing defined Messier's legend in New York more than the 1994 Stanley Cup title the Rangers and their fans waited 54 years to win.
The quest for that championship was why Messier called Sather in the summer of 1991 and asked him to trade him to New York. Maybe he was brash and a bit cocky, but Messier was 30 years old and ready to take on the biggest challenge the NHL had to offer.
"I was ready for just about anything that anybody could throw at me," Messier said. "I was ready for the challenge of winning the Stanley Cup. I was ready for this city. I wasn't intimidated about coming to New York.
"I was a little naive exactly what I was getting in for even though I thought I knew what I was getting in for," he said.
It almost happened in his first season with the Rangers, but after finishing with the NHL's beat regular-season record the team was an early playoff flameout. The next season was even more disappointing as the Rangers missed the postseason.
That set the stage for the 1994 run that ended with the elusive title but not before Messier's defining New York moment.
The Rangers were down 3-2 in the best-of-seven semifinals against the Devils and faced a tough Game 6 in New Jersey. Messier saw his team needed a lift and he gave it to them in the form of a winning guarantee.
When he made his declaration, he was thinking that the message was strictly for his teammates. The fact that it would be splashed all over the back pages never crossed his mind.
"All I was thinking was to try to figure out a way how to make the players believe that I believed that we were going to win," Messier said.
"I think guys gained strength from his will," said longtime teammate Adam Graves, the last Rangers player before Messier to wear No. 11.
And for that, his sweater will reside next to the banner that commemorates the long-awaited championship.
"That's immediately where your eyes go to every time you come into the Garden. I think that symbolizes so many things to so many people," he said. "I don't look at it as my name I look it as our team.
"It's my name on the back of the jersey but I don't look at it as me being raised to the rafters because I don't think any one individual can stand alone," he said.