"I was talking with him the other day about the problems we've had in the past," goalie Mike Richter says. "We always seem to do well during the season, then fall flat when the biggest moment comes during the playoffs. Two straight years we've done that. It seemed we were spent at the end. I told him that we seemed burned out.
"You know what he said? I think now I probably never should have asked the question. He said he doesn't believe in burnout. Of course."
Out of the mist. A tornado.
The trade began to take shape last summer. Messier sat on the deck of the house he had bought on Hilton Head Island, S.C., and decided, for sure, that he had to leave the Oilers. There had been thoughts during the long '90-91 season, thoughts while he sat out 27 games with two different injuries, thoughts while the Edmonton franchise continued its fire-sale renovations, replacing the big-money players of the Stanley Cup times with lower-budget prospects for the future. His friends mostly were gone. Why shouldn't he go? The thoughts became action. He called Oiler general manager Glen Sather and asked to be traded.
"I'd always thought I'd play in one place for all of my life," Messier says. "But I looked at some of the people who'd left—Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri—and none of them had suffered. I started thinking it would be good for me, too. Maybe I'd done as much as I could in Edmonton. It was time for another team, another place. It would be good for me financially, and it would be sort of a rejuvenation."
He didn't want the process to be bitter. Why destroy in three or four hours the goodwill of a lot of good times? He was an Edmonton native who had grown up to be a star on the hometown team. Why go out with a lot of harsh words? He simply wanted to go. He had played for the Oilers for 12 years, since he was 18 years old. He had been on the local sports pages since he was a kid. Time enough.
He asked to go to a contender, not some dead-end team. He somehow figured New York from the beginning. Who else had the money to pay a big-time contract? Who else had a team that needed a big-time player to complete its roster? Los Angeles seemed out; Gretzky was already there. Detroit was a possibility, but New York seemed best.
Sather called Smith, who was interested but wary. What was wrong here? Why was Messier available? Superstars mostly are available when age and injury have begun to attack ability. Wasn't Messier hurt during the past season? Negotiations moved at a conservative pace. Smith made calls and pondered possibilities. He decided he wanted Messier very much.
"I was looking for that mind-set of a winner to bring into the locker room," Smith says. "It's that repetitive mind-set that thinks only of winning, that knows how to win. I think that's very big in hockey, why you see so much repetition in the teams that do win. They expect to win. They know how to win. I thought that Mark, no matter how long he played for us, would leave us with something we didn't have before. Maybe that would be how to win."
The deal was stalled until the end of the Canada Cup and completed just after the season started. Messier, 6'1", 210 pounds, took one last physical for the Rangers to show that both his injured knee and his thumb had healed. The team doctor termed him "a specimen."