Sunday, September 18, 2005

"Lazzari's Sports Roundup" ---- 09-24-05

Some called him "The Moose," others coined him "The Captain," still others referred to the man as "The Messiah." The minute I first heard of Mark Messier's recent retirement from the game of hockey, I put all nicknames aside for a moment and could think of just two words to describe the man who will go down as one of the sport's all-time greats: simply magnificent.

It's difficult to describe/narrow down specific highlights of a career that lasted a staggering 25 years, but let me start with this: 1,756 games played, 6 Stanley Cup championships, and a 16-time All-Star. Mark Messier won the Hart Trophy twice as the NHL's most valuable player; two times his fellow cohorts on the ice throughout the league concurred with the MVP voters--enabling him to walk away with the coveted/highly respected Lester B. Pearson Trophy. He also won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1984 as the MVP of the playoffs; yes, "The Captain" shined in the post-season. He surpassed the 100-point milestone SIX different times in his career--five times while in Edmonton, his hometown. A durable guy? You betcha; Messier played 60 or more games in 20 out of his 25 NHL campaigns.

He tallied a robust total of 1,887 career points--second all-time to a one-time teammate better known as "The Great One," Wayne Gretzky--and was a four-time NHL first team All-Star. "He was the best player I ever played with," remarked Gretzky recently; they won four Stanley Cups together while in Edmonton. Undoubtedly overshadowed by Gretzky while with the Oilers (who WASN'T?), Messier STILL managed to win another Stanley Cup in Edmonton after Gretzky was traded to the L.A. Kings--responding with his best point-total ever in 1990; yes, Wayne may have been "The Franchise" during the decade of the '80s in Edmonton, but a man named Mark emerged as the unquestionable leader. In fact, Messier can arguably be called one of the greatest leaders in professional sports history; you surely won't get an argument from at least one admiring columnist.

He brought his unmatched unselfishness and dedication to Broadway in 1991. Who can forget his guarantee of "We'll win tonight" before that Game 6 playoff tilt vs. New Jersey in 1994--putting Ranger fans at ease while responding with a hat trick that evening; yeah, it doesn't get more clutch than that. The Big Apple and the Rangers were subsequently rewarded with their first Stanley Cup championship in 54 years due to the man who brought "belief" to the team--according to former left winger Adam Graves. By the way, Mark Messier still remains the only player to captain two different teams to Stanley Cup championships.

When I think back on the career of Mark Messier, I think of his aforementioned unselfishness and classy persona; he could have easily returned this coming year for a 26th season in order to break Gordie Howe's all-time record of games played, but had too much respect for both the integrity of the game and Howe's own remarkable streak of longevity. I also think of a man who was a mentor to others--though he outlasted many of them; Connecticut's own Brian Leetch is among those who consider Messier to have had the biggest influence on them during their careers. I think of those feared Edmonton teams headed by Messier and Gretzky whom I'd watch play the out-manned Whalers at the Hartford Civic Center during the 1980s; "The Moose" and "The Great One" never disappointed as my friends and I would often return home shaking our heads in awe. I think of a man who probably could have scored even MORE goals than the remarkable 694 he DID tally; he was the type of player who'd take great pride in setting up others--all in the interest of WINNING.

Enough talk about Mark Messier's on-ice accomplishments--as his legacy has been strongly cemented and he's a "no-brainer" Hall of Famer. Let's talk about a man whom New York Post writer Larry Brooks called "as caring and contributing a member of the community as any professional athlete who ever called New York his home." His dedication to the city in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was both undying and genuine; yeah, he surely scored a hat trick with New Yorkers during some very trying times. In addition, his almost-quiet--yet effective--affiliation with the Tomorrow's Children's Fund (which aids youngsters fighting cancer and other serious maladies) has been perhaps his greatest accomplishment. In short, Messier has raised MILLIONS of dollars for the non-profit organization; the Mark Messier Skyway at the Hackensack University Medical Center is due to open in a few weeks. As you can see, "The Captain" has simply vowed to make it one of his life "goals" to score OFF the ice, too.

The New York Rangers will retire Mark Messier's #11 jersey on January 12th when they take on--who else--the Edmonton Oilers. There will surely be tears in the eyes of "The Captain" as he remembers things such as the 9/11 attacks, the optimism he brought to New York, and an unforgettable career started in Edmonton over a quarter-century ago. Many of us will also be emotional as we celebrate a man whose legacy surely transcended the ice--and continues to do so.

Mark Messier, there may be only one man who will forever be linked with the nickname "The Great One"--your former teammate Mr. Gretzky; even you'll admit that and salute in his honor. But on behalf of many of us, I'd like to thank you for the memories and for truly being a HELLUVA GOOD ONE--one of the finest players to ever don a pair of hockey skates. Your actions both on AND off the ice will forever be fresh in our sports memories.

Bob Lazzari

Reprinted by permission of the Valley Times.


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