He sometimes seems to have arrived from the mist that hangs over Long Island Sound in front of the Ice Casino rink at Rye Playland, where the New York Rangers practice. Who is this Mark Messier? Is he for real? How can he be doing the things that he is doing? There is a sense of magic about this setting, anyway. Isn't this where some scenes from the movie Big were filmed? Didn't the kid find the mechanical fortune-teller right there on the pavilion, not 200 yards from the rink? Didn't the fortune-teller offer to grant any one wish in the world?
"What would you want more than anything?"
Poof. Here he is, a balding, 31-year-old superstar, ready to show the Rangers how they can become, well...big. He smiles. He scowls. He charms. He skates deep into the corners. He plants himself in front of the net. Whatever the Rangers seem to need is what he has to offer. He is Kevin Costner's Robin Hood, suddenly walking through the locker room, gathering a group of merry men to rescue the troubled Maid Marian. Come on, boys. He knows the way.
Try to put a finger on the things he has done and sometimes you touch substance, but mostly you touch air. Changed air. A team that has been trailed by a history of postseason failure—that hasn't won the Stanley Cup since 1940—is riding toward its future at the top of the standings, best record in hockey. There is a change in confidence, a change in outlook. There is leadership. Poof. One man. There is a difference.
"You make a trade, you hope for the best," Ranger general manager Neil Smith says. "In this case, we were looking for Mark to give us as much help off the ice as on the ice. He has done even more than we expected."
The trade was made on the second day of the season, Messier coming from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for veteran Bernie Nicholls and two prospects, Steven Rice and Louie DeBrusk. The idea was that someone who has been a big part of five Stanley Cup champions, who has won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player, might be able to share secrets that have always been behind a curtain the Rangers could not open. Why do some teams rise when they reach the big games at the end? Why do other teams falter? What little wheels have to be adjusted inside each individual psyche? Do winners tie the laces on their skates differently? Do winners speak in a different winners' language to each other? What else, besides talent, does it take to win?
There have been attempts in the Rangers' past to bring the knowledge of winning into the dressing room—deals for stars like Phil Esposito and Guy Lafleur, winners who were at the end of their careers—that have failed. This one seems to be working. At week's end the Rangers had the best record in the NHL. The young faces and the old faces watch and listen. They somehow were waiting for Messier to arrive. He somehow was looking for them. This has been the new man's team since the day he arrived and went to each player, individually, and said, "Hi, I'm Mark Messier."
He has centered the Rangers' best line, with wings Adam Graves and Tony Amonte, and is leading the team in scoring with 30 goals and 60 assists for 90 points. He has worked the power play and killed penalties, taken every bodycheck and delivered his own in return. Named captain two days after he arrived, he has called meetings, planned parties, rearranged the locker room. He has changed minds, strengthened weak hearts.
"Just his presence in the locker room, the intangibles he brings, make us a better team," Graves says. "He's more valuable to this team than he ever was to Edmonton, and in 1990 he won the Hart Trophy. I'd say he has to be the premier leader in professional sports right now. Any team. Any game. Who'd be better?"