“I can’t think of a better place to be honoured,” said Messier, choking up with emotion as he looked out on a frozen sea of down coats, parkas, toques and Messier jerseys. “I’m excited to be home.”
Fans chanted his nickname “Moose! Moose! Moose!” throughout the noon-time ceremony. It officially launched two days of festivities that will culminate Tuesday night with Messier having his No. 11 sweater retired prior to a game against ex-teammate Wayne Gretzky and the Phoenix Coyotes.
“This reminds me an awful lot of May in 1984, standing up here with our first Stanley Cup win. That was a long time ago,” said Messier, who now lives in the U.S., and ruefully admitted he got lost on the way in from the airport. “It used to be one road in and one road out.”
Gretzky, in Calgary on Monday as the Coyotes faced the Flames, was anxious to fete his former teammate.
“We’re all looking forward to this couple days,” said Gretzky. “It’s a tremendous honour not only for (Messier), but for his family. I know his family has always been very proud of him.
“He’s well deserving of everything he’s going to get.”
The Edmonton-born Messier set a new standard for power forwards in his 25-year NHL career. He won five Stanley Cups with the Oilers during their glory years before going to New York and winning one more with the Rangers.
Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel officially renamed a portion of the city’s northbound thoroughfare Mark Messier Trail, presenting Messier with a symbolic road sign.
The road is the main link between Edmonton and the city of St. Albert, where Messier, 46, played his junior hockey.
Fans came from as far away as North Carolina.
Rob Kirk travelled from the southeastern U.S. state, paying, he said, “an arm and a leg” for a ticket to Tuesday’s game.
“He’s the ultimate leader in sports. He’s a throwback to the old school,” said Kirk, 32.
Front and centre were Nick Poliak and friend Doug Field. Poliak was dressed in a white Oiler jersey and blue Oiler hard hat topped off with a white teddy bear clutching a Stanley Cup.
Poliak said he’d been going to Oiler games since they “poured the concrete” at what is now Rexall Place.
“They were part of the city,” he said of the 1980s-era Oilers. “That’s why they’re so dear to us.”
Fans who didn’t show up in Messier apparel were lined up three deep at an Oilers souvenir table to buy Messier commemorative keychains (C$10) pins ($7) and baseball hats ($35). The big business was in blue and orange $30 T-shirts. The $230 crested Messier jerseys hardly moved.
After the ceremony, Messier waded in among the fans, signing shirts and hats, including a photo for Tina Bisson, who had stood in the park for three hours, shivering and stamping her feet for a front row view.
“I’m just thunderstruck right now,” said Bisson, swaying and holding her forehead after meeting Messier, then letting out a screech that could be heard as far away as the Three Bananas Cafe on the edge of the park.
“Oh my gosh.
I just love him.
In ceremonies prior to the Coyotes game, No. 11 will be raised beside the banners of fellow honourees Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri, and Al Hamilton.
The Rangers retired Messier’s jersey soon after he left the game in 2005 as its second-leading all-time scorer with 1,887 points – behind only Gretzky.