Monday, September 12, 2005

Riding Into The Sunset
By Ben Valentine

Winner. Big time player. Leader. Hall of Famer. One of the greats. What do these words all have in common?

They have been used to describe Mark Messier at one time or another.

I would love to write a post saying how “the Captain’s” retirement is the end of an era in New York sports. But that would be lying. The truth is Messier hasn’t been that player in years. There wasn’t even hockey last season. In all honesty, this is probably been a long time coming.

So instead I’ll just reflect on how one man in what is the city’s fourth sport became its biggest icon.

And he was New York sports for a time. After the Rangers won the Cup in 1994, there was no bigger name in this city than Messier. Everything you hear about a guy like Derek Jeter, you heard first about Messier. He was “the Captain” before Jeter, he was the athlete who everyone knew would play his best on the biggest stage. He was the man who did the impossible… he ended the 54 year jinx on the Blueshirts.

The Rangers in 94’ were the best team in hockey. They had a hall of famer in Brian Leetch, who played out of his mind that postseason, taking home the Conn Smythe trophy for playoff MVP. Goalie Mike Richter stood on his head at times, even stopping Pavel Bure on a penalty shot in the deciding game of the Stanley Cup Finals. Adam Graves scored 50 goals that season. Stephane Matteau’s goal against the Devils in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals is one of the most famous moments in New York Sports history. But what everyone remembers about that run was Game 6 of that Devils series.

Down 3 games to 2, the Rangers were on the ropes. But the Captain guaranteed they’d win the game. It was a guarantee before everyone was making them. Patrick Ewing would make a similar guarantee just weeks later. Big talk, from a big player. Would he back it up?

He did. The big player scored three goals in that Rangers win. The Rangers didn’t win the game, Messier had won the game. He was like Joe Namath, except unlike Namath, he had clearly been the driving force in the Ranger victory. After that, his status as New York’s leading sportsman was sealed.

That prediction and performance is what separated Messier from the others. For as great a player as Ewing was, his legacy will always be tarnished by the Knicks failure to back up his guarantee and win the NBA championship that year. Whenever somebody in this town makes a bold prediction, Messier is the standard that people hold them to, because you can’t get any better than what he did. A Hat trick. Sure the last goal was an empty netter. But it didn’t matter. A hat trick in the postseason will turn you into a star. It was the fourth of his career. But it was the physical manifestation of willing the Rangers to victory. The rest, they say, is history.

Messier was a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest to ever play this game. He was in Wayne Gretzky’s shadow in Edmonton, but made up for it big time when he came to the Big Apple. He won five cups with the Oilers, but the one he won in New York is the one that etched his legacy in stone.

He was a fiery player who wouldn’t hesitate to get into a scrap if he thought it was the right move to make. I still remember him dropping the gloves with Doug Gilmour back in 1997, the last time the Rangers made the playoffs. He hit hard, he won faceoffs and he inspired others. He did everything necessary to win the game.

And when he signed with the Canucks after 97’, the Rangers never recovered. Hockey in this town never was the same again. Messier was never the same either. But then he was an older player at this point so it would have been unfair to expect him to duplicate what he had done in New York. Sure, both sides tried to recreate it when Messier eventually returned in 2000, but those days were long past. He was a player who was serviceable, but hung on too long. It pains a sports fan whenever they have to witness a legend fight to be mediocre. Like Ewing, Jerry Rice and countless others, Messier loved the game too much to step aside, even though it had passed him by. But it was that stubbornness that helped make him an icon, thus we have to forgive him and those like him.

Others have come before and will come again, but I’m not sure if anyone can be the face of an organization, of a sport, in New York like Messier. Not even Jeter. That’s not to knock him. But there can only be one standard.

And after the guarantee, the goals, and ending the curse in such dramatic fashion Mark Messier is that standard which all others hope to aspire to.

Today Mark Messier retired after a quarter of a century in the NHL, second only to Gretzky in points scored. To honor the legendary #11, I have a guarantee of my own.

He will be missed.

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