Smith called Gretzky on July 2, and two weeks later they agreed on a deal. "As much as I've done offensively, I know that to win championships, you need defense," Gretzky says. "The Rangers have great defense. Playing with Brian Leetch was obviously part of the attraction. He reminds me of Paul Coffey [the Oilers' brilliant offensive defenseman during their championship years]. And, of course, I really enjoy playing with Mark. He hasn't changed. Mess wears his heart on his sleeve, just as he always did. The only difference is he's in New York now. He was a hidden jewel in Edmonton because I overshadowed him, but he was such a team player, the most unselfish player I've played with. It rubbed off on the whole team."
Those who worry that Gretzky will have difficulty adjusting to playing on a team that, for the first time in his career, is not his team don't understand his relationship with Messier. Gretzky may have been captain in Edmonton, but Messier led in the locker room. "I never felt I was playing in his shadow," Messier says. "I had a responsibility on the team that was different from Wayne's. Everyone had his role, and I felt great about mine. So did many others about theirs. If we won, and won often, we knew that everyone would get respect. It was only the perception from the outside that the Oilers were Wayne's team or the Rangers are my team."
Make no mistake, though, the Rangers are Messier's team. "That's how it should be," Gretzky says, professing to be looking forward to getting the C off his shirt, if for no better reason than that he can tell reporters to "ask the captain" if they inquire about a lineup change or some other team-related topic that he doesn't want to discuss. "My responsibility here is to take some of the burden off Mark," says Gretzky. "He won't face the top defensive center on the other team every night."
Nor will Gretzky, for that matter. "Wayne's looking forward to not being the only go-to guy on the team, which is what he's been the last couple of years," says Smith, who envisions Gretzky playing with the Rangers' two speedy Russian forwards, 23-year-old Alexei Kovalev and 32-year-old Sergei Nemchinov. "In the best of times Wayne was never fast, so you need to put him with guys who are quick."
That would seem to preclude pairing Gretzky with slow-footed 30-year-old forward Luc Robitaille, his onetime Kings teammate. When Robitaille, who scored 63 goals for Los Angeles in 1992-93, was traded from the Kings to the Pittsburgh Penguins in '94, he blamed Gretzky for orchestrating the deal, an accusation Gretzky has denied. There was tension between Robitaille and Gretzky after that, but whatever difficulties they had appear to be gone. Smith has talked to both of them about it, and they have assured him that everything has been smoothed over. Furthermore, Messier has guaranteed there won't be friction. "I like Luc," Messier says. "When he wasn't scoring last year, he still went above the call of duty in terms of effort. That's the most important thing to me."
If Messier likes Robitaille, the case is closed as far as Gretzky is concerned. Messier and Gretzky spent lots of time together during the World Cup—playing golf, dining, talking in the locker room, where their cubicles were next to each other—in part so Messier could bring Gretzky up to speed on what was going on with the Rangers and what to expect in New York. "Nothing's for free in New York," Messier says. "You have to bring your A game every night."
There's still no one who sees the ice and passes the puck better than Gretzky—though Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux is on a par with him—and with the Great One anchoring one power-play unit and Messier another, the Rangers should have one of the most potent special teams in hockey. But whatever Gretzky's on-ice contributions this season, his turn in the Big Apple will add an important dynamic to an already talented Rangers team. "Wayne attracts attention wherever he goes," Messier says. "He's fun to be around. As a teammate you feed off that energy. The guys will feed off it. I call it catching the wave. That's what gets a team through a season, feeding off each other's energy. Wayne's always going for records, there's a full house every game. It's like a carnival atmosphere around him."
So whoop it up, New Yorkers. The carnival won't last forever. This season and maybe the next one, too, should be a fine, fast ride. "I have great memories of Edmonton," says Messier. "But you always try to make new headlines, new stories. Wayne and I are not the same people as we were when we were 22. But what's new is what's exciting. What's about to happen."