A man and the city’s adoring fans. That’s what this week was really about in Edmonton. When Messier took a final lap of the ice after his No. 11 jersey had been raised to the ceiling on Tuesday, the old building almost shook on its foundation while the sold-out crowd saluted him in a manner that bordered on strident.
It was a stirring moment on an emotional day for Oilers fans, who earlier had been given the shocking news that assistant captain Ryan Smyth had been traded to the New York Islanders. The man who made that trade, Oliers GM Kevin Lowe, was noticeably absent from the ceremony. Lowe was a teammate of Messiers during Edmonton’s glory days.
A few fans shouted encouragement for Smyth during the Messier ceremony, but the night still belonged to the Moose.
He was already in tears when he finished his skate with the Stanley Cup and placed it on a table at centre ice. His three-year-old son Douglas, wearing a vintage Messier jersey, promptly jumped into his arms as the crowd again cheered.
“I want to thank each and every one of you for all of your support,” Messier told the 16,839 in attendance. “(The Oilers are) an institution in the world of sports.”
That institution started with the dynasty teams of the 1980’s.
Messier, who grew up nearby in St. Albert, was the emotional leader of those talented teams that featured the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr and Al Hamilton – the men who have all previously had their jerseys retired in Edmonton.
Only one player will ever have worn No. 11 in the history of the Oilers. His name is Messier.
“One of the reasons that made it so special to play here is that I was born and raised here,” he said to the crowd. “To be honoured in this way, standing down here, is a humbling experience.”
Former teammates, friends and family joined him on the ice for the roughly 40-minute ceremony. It started with a video tribute that highlighted the many highs of Messier’s fine career.
Six Stanley Cups, two Hart Trophies, one Conn Smythe Trophy and a point total of 1,887 that leaves him second all-time in league history. The most important thing for Messier is the mark he left on the city of Edmonton and the people he played with.
“I’d like to thank all the Oiler fans for properly honouring the greatest leader sport has ever produced,” said current Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish, a former teammate of Messier’s. “Mark, that skate brought back great memories.
“Welcome back to centre ice with the Edmonton Oilers.”
While these ceremonies have become a regular occurrence around the league, they never seem to tire for the fans who attend them. It’s part hero worship and part longing for a bygone era.
Messier is 46 now, yet it seems so easy for many to remember the glorious moments he produced for the Oilers more than two decades ago.
Even though the timing of the ceremony created a strange atmosphere because it coincided with the Smyth deal and the NHL’s trade deadline, Messier thanked the team for it.
The Oilers had selected Feb. 27 so coach Gretzky and his Phoenix Coyotes could be there – just as they were when Coffey’s No. 7 was honoured last season.
“Tonight would not have been the same without Wayne being here,” said Messier. “Wayne was our leader. He was our inspiration. He was the guy we leaned on and he never let us down and never put himself above anybody.”
Still, the Oilers regretted that the events had to coincide.
“When this day first came up months ago, I thought, ‘Whatever we do on deadline day is not going to impact the evening,”‘ said Lowe. “I never in my wildest dreams ever imagined this sort of thing happening so I don’t want to appear insensitive to the impact of the deal on the whole event.”
Even Smyth himself wanted the day to be about Messier.
He refused to speak to reporters after news of the trade broke because he didn’t want to take any of the spotlight.
“I want this to be a great night for Mark Messier,” he said Tuesday morning before being traded. “For what he’s done for this city. For what he’s done for the run of five Stanley Cups.”
Fortunately for all involved, Messier still had his moment. And it brought back a lot of memories seeing him holding the Stanley Cup.