Mark Messier’s No. 11 will be retired Feb. 27 when Wayne Gretzky and the Phoenix Coyotes come to town, the team announced.
The centre nicknamed the Moose, who became famous for his withering stare and for bodychecks that could violently separate sinew from bone, said it will be an emotional ceremony in the city he grew up in.
“I’m not promising anybody I’m not going to cry. That would be a big mistake,” he said and laughed while being interviewed by reporters via satellite video feed.
In an NHL career that spanned a quarter century, Messier won six Stanley Cups – five with Edmonton and one with the New York Rangers.
He retired in September 2005 as the second-leading scorer in league history (behind Gretzky) with 1,887 points (694 goals and 1,193 assists).
His No. 11 will join the sweaters of Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri and Al Hamilton high up in Rexall Place. The game is already sold out but will be televised. Oiler President Patrick LaForge said the team will wear vintage blue Oiler jerseys from the Messier-Gretzky heyday of the 1980s.
Drafted by the Oilers in 1979, Messier became the prototypical power forward – a hard-skating goal scorer with a mean streak and the muscle to back it up.
“He probably took over from Gordie Howe in terms of being the complete package,” said Kevin Lowe, Messier’s teammate in the glory years and now the Oilers’ general manager.
Messier said it’s fitting to have Gretzky, now the Coyote coach, on hand, because he was the leader when the team was still learning what it took to be a champion.
“Wayne was so far advanced to us in so many areas,” he said.
“I figured out pretty quickly that if I watched and figured out what he was doing and tried to emulate it, I could become a better hockey player.”
Lowe agreed that Nos. 99 and 11 were the yin and yang in the oil drop logo.
“I don’t know if Wayne Gretzky is as good without Mark Messier and conversely I don’t know if Mark Messier is as good without Wayne Gretzky.
“Mark being the power guy allowed for Wayne to do things in his game, and of course Wayne being so creative allowed for Mark to play the power game.”
As soaring salaries squeezed small-market teams in the 1990s, Messier was traded to the New York Rangers in 1991, where he was lionized as Mark Messiah and led the Blueshirts in 1994 to the Stanley Cup.
His legend as a clutch playoff performer was sealed that season with New York trailing the hated New Jersey Devils 3-2 in the semi-final. Messier guaranteed a victory in Game 6 and scored a hat trick to back it up. New York went on to win the series and eventually the team’s first championship in 54 years.
The Rangers retired his jersey on January 12 in an emotional ceremony that included members of the ’94 team. The Rangers were playing Edmonton, and in the Alberta capital, a record 13,000 subscribers bought the game on TV pay-per-view – a standard that stood until last week, when 20,000 tuned in to watch the Oilers boo returning defenceman Chris Pronger.
When Gretzky’s jersey was retired, the expressway running past Rexall Place was renamed in his honour. A city spokesman said public tributes are being discussed for Messier, but said nothing has been firmed up.
In St. Albert, the city on Edmonton’s northern outskirts where Messier grew up and played junior hockey, there is a Mark Messier Arena.
Earlier this year, city councillors were given an earful by outraged hockey fans when they tried to sell naming rights to the rink. The politicians changed their minds and apologized to Messier. Messier said bygones are bygones: “I certainly harbour no (ill) feelings.”
St. Albert Mayor Paul Chalifoux said they’ve set aside $10,000 to honour him and are talking with his family on arrangements – be it a black tie dinner, a statue or some other tribute.
The arena furor is a non-issue, he said.
“It was a bad experience and wasn’t good for the community,” he said. “It was a very popular decision to reverse.”