Mark Messier blocked a shot with his foot last month against the Washington Capitals and crumpled to the ice, pain creasing his face. He made it to his skates, then to the bench and, a few shifts later, back into the game. Messier, the New York Rangers' captain, looked like the guy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who kept getting bits of his anatomy hacked off but insisted that his injuries were only flesh wounds. See, it was nothing. They can't hurt me. So they can't hurt you. Good thing, too. When Messier got hurt, a chill crept down the spines of the Rangers players. On the bench Ray Ferraro turned to Nick Kypreos and asked, only half-jokingly, "What do we do now?"
"I guess," Kypreos replied, "we have to keep playing."
"You think of Patton. you think of MacArthur...that's how we feel about Mark," goalie Glenn Healy says of Messier. "The true test of a leader is if he makes you a better player. He won't make you shoot harder or pass better or make more saves, but being a better player isn't just about skills. We sometimes say a guy has all the tools but no toolbox. The game is about having a toolbox, and no one understands that better or helps put things in perspective like Mark. We believe in him, in what he represents."
This explains why fans in New York think Messier is a typo for Messiah. There's no question that he ranks among sports' most respected leaders. Really, who compares? A baseball player? Baseball consists of personal battles within a team structure, and the most courage any baseball player exhibited last year was showing his face in public after the strike. Michael Jordan? His Airness doesn't lead as much as he lets teammates catch up once in a while. John Elway and his fourth-quarter rallies? Football requires the same combination of physical sacrifice and emotion as hockey, but NFL teams don't play 82 matches followed by playoff games almost every other night for two months. No team sport is as demanding as hockey, and no hockey player demands more of himself—and of others—than Messier.
A small stack of books sits in the living room of Messier's three-story brownstone off Central Park West. On top sits Sacred Hoops. a Zen-and-the-art-of-Michael-maintenance work by Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson. Messier adores it. In fact, Messier, who quit school in 12th grade, has read many books of that genre—Pat Riley's The Winner Within, Sun Tzu's The Art of War—about leadership, bonding, positive energy. What began as instinct, inherited from his father, Doug, a union leader in the old Western Hockey League, has become intellectual pursuit.
"To lead, you have to have the trust of the players, and to do that you have to find a way to connect with them, to find common ground with even.' individual." Messier says. "It's a people issue, not a sports issue. The way to find that common thread is compassion. The odd threat doesn't hurt"—Messier throws back his head and laughs a basso laugh—"but with compassion the appeal to the player is much deeper than the old hard-ass line that you're going to get reprimanded if you don't play well. We try to build a team, to bond, through the course of a year. And you can do that if you appeal in a compassionate way."
He speaks New Age. He plays caveman. Messier has lugged around the rejuvenated Rangers all season, winning face-offs, checking, killing penalties and scoring like never before. At week's end he had 36 goals in 52 games, which put him on pace to score 50 goals for the first time in 14 seasons. No one has ever had more than a five-year gap between 50-goal seasons. And at 35, the 6'1", 205-pound Messier remains the fiercest player in hockey, a steely competitor who can smelt iron ore with his eyes. Sometimes before a big game those light-brown eyes narrow into a glare that both opponents and teammates call the Look. His cheekbones are high. His jaw is prominent. He can comb his hair with a towel. His hockey helmet, jammed down to his brow, emphasizes his most prominent features. His visage is half-man, half-Easter Island statue. The only thing as imposing as seeing number 11 in pursuit of a puck is seeing Messier take off his number 11. which hides an upper body as chiseled as his face.
And that chest hides a heart. When Rangers enforcer Darren Langdon was called up from the minors last season for his first NHL game, he found a Hugo Boss suit hanging in his dressing-room stall. The attached note read. "From the Guys." As it turned out. "the Guys" was Messier, and the suit was his way of making someone feel part of the group, like his team barbecues or riotous masquerade parties. In recent years he has attended those parties as the Joker, a Roman centurion and Tarzan; Messier plays to type. "Mark has a unique way about him," says New York defenseman Kevin Lowe, who also played with Messier on the Edmonton Oilers, a team that won five Cups between 1984 and '90. "He has an ability to make people comfortable, relaxed. Everything he does is conducive to having fun."
Messier grew up on the hard-partying Oilers, whose happy hour lasted almost a decade. "Someone asked me why I was having such a good year at 35"—there's that laugh—"and I told them all the years of clean living were finally paying off," says Messier, whose appetite for high life is now sated by slightly daintier portions. Indeed, he says he hasn't missed a curfew since he became a captain in Edmonton. "The game is first," he says. "I learned you had to respect it."
Messier took Leadership 101 under coach Glen Sather and Wayne Gretzky, and by the time Edmonton won its first Stanley Cup, the man-child was the Oilers' physical leader. There is an oft-told story—one that might even be true—that in 1987 Messier grabbed Kent Nilsson, a flashy but fainthearted Oilers forward, and told him that if he didn't play harder, he would have to kill him. "Folklore," says Lowe, who concedes that he has heard the tale. Another former Oiler, who won't confirm the Nilsson story but doesn't exactly deny it, either, says, "You didn't get this from me, but I heard he also threatened [former Rangers coach] Mike Keenan."