“You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy,” said Messier, who will have his No. 11 jersey retired and raised to the rafters of Rexall Place Tuesday night prior to a game against ex-teammate Wayne Gretzky and the Phoenix Coyotes. It was a night of reminiscing by old Oilers of the team’s glory years in the 1980s: Glen Sather, Kevin Lowe, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Dave Semenko and Paul Coffey.
But it was Messier who brought the house to a hushed standstill when he was overcome with emotion remembering not the team’s five NHL championships but a locker room of players who came to rely and trust each other.
“Of course the Stanley Cups were the pinnacle, but there’s so much more that goes into that over the years,” he said.
No matter what the problems were, he told the room, “We could go into that dressing room and find that safe haven.”
He said Gretzky was their leader and became their inspiration when they realized he was playing their game on the highest plane. “We realized there was a little bit of a destiny thing happening here, and we had to figure out a way to help him get there.”
But Coffey said it was Messier, a prototypical power forward known as much for a sharp elbow as a his scoring prowess who made the Oilers believe and launched their dynasty.
It was a late-season game against the defending Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders, he told the crowd. The up and coming Oilers were still struggling to believe in themselves.
The puck went in the corner and in raced Messier on a collision course with Islanders star defenceman Denis Potvin.
“They hit like absolute battering rams,” said Coffey.
“The whole arena went silent. There was a delay for two or three seconds. And Denis Potvin fell.
“I remember I said to (teammate) Charlie Huddy, ‘We can beat these guys.’
“That was the turning point.”
Hosted by Ron MacLean of Hockey Night in Canada and featuring songs by Tom Cochrane and Colin James, it was a night of ball gowns, suits and ties mixed with Messier jerseys, ball hats and blue jeans.
Messier capped the evening by belting out a rendition of “Suspicious Minds.”
Earlier Monday, hundreds braved temperatures pushing the minus 20s C with wind chill to honour Messier in a downtown public celebration.
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.
“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.”
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 from a distance.
“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, Coffey, Grant Fuhr, 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.