From wheels to skates
Messier takes interesting career route to finals
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -- Eric Messier's move from defense to forward was nothing compared to his shift from skates with wheels back to ones with blades.
The Colorado Avalanche left wing went from being an undrafted defenseman to playing roller hockey while he was a college student.
A chance meeting with current Avalanche coach Bob Hartley got him out of school and, six years later, landed him in the Stanley Cup finals against the defending champion New Jersey Devils.
"My dream was kind of over," said Messier, who sat through the draft at the Montreal Forum waiting for his name to be called. After playing on a playoff finalist in the Quebec juniors, Messier thought some NHL team would select him but it didn't happen.
"I was disappointed," he said. "Most of the time when you go to the finals, you get more scouts that are going to the game and you expect to get drafted. Maybe not in the first five rounds, but in the ninth or 10th round I was expected."
Messier, no relation to New York Rangers captain Mark Messier, set his sights on being an elementary school teacher. After playing at the University of Quebec for the 1994-95 season, he took what he called "a summer job" playing for the Montreal team in Roller Hockey International.
"When you're a student, it's a good summer job," he said. "It was fun."
And quite different from quiet college games.
"When you play in the university, there's some places when you go play there, there's only 30 people in the stands," Messier said. "After that season, I wanted to play roller hockey and that's where everything started."
Hartley had seen Messier play while coaching against him for two seasons in the Quebec league. The future NHL coach went to a roller hockey game in August 1995 and ended up giving Messier his card and a message to call.
"I got tickets to go from a reporter," said Hartley, who was coaching the Avalanche's AHL affiliate in Cornwall. "Here's a guy that was a long shot. I basically asked him to fill a jersey for training camp."
The funny thing is, Messier didn't think he was too good on wheeled skates since he had never used them before.
"I was pretty average," he said. "It's tough to stop. It's not like on the ice. I was on the boards all the time. I tried to stop, but it didn't work for the first week. When you fall on the ice, you slide for 10 feet, but on cement you're just there."
Neither Hartley nor Messier figured an invitation to Cornwall would lead to anything.
"I told him that we had lots of prospects on the blueline," Hartley recounted. "I felt that I had no room for him but if he would come and spend two or three weeks with me at training camp, I would put him in shape and he would play college hockey or somewhere else."
It was in camp that everything changed for Messier and Hartley.
"We had a couple of injuries," Hartley said. "It was a big surprise. I was able to keep him as the seventh D. By Christmas he was my top defenseman."
The 27-year-old Messier has parlayed that into an NHL career that began in November 1996. Since then he has moved up from the blueline to now being the Avalanche's third-line left wing.
"Last year, I started being a forward," he said Saturday before Game 4 of the finals. "I just looked at the sheet in training camp and my name was at left wing.
"It's new for me and I just love it. Still I'm learning every day."
In Colorado's 3-1 victory Thursday night, Messier led all forwards with 19 minutes, 35 seconds of ice time.
"I know I don't have the best hands on the team, so I won't have much time on the power play or anything," said Messier, who started the conversion to forward last season. "My job is to play hard on the boards, maybe take a slash sometime, and slide in front of the puck as much as I can.
"I don't mind. I like it. Sometimes it might hurt, but after the game it doesn't hurt at all."
Messier is a long way away from where he'd be if Hartley hadn't found him.
"I was studying to be a third-grade teacher," he said. "My mom was a teacher and I was following her steps."