"One last hurrah?" Mark Messier repeats, his eyebrows coming alive with rippling menace, like a pair of Doberman pinschers straining at the leash. Let us at him, boss, they growl, arching above the fire of his eyes. With effort Messier gets those two sleek, dark man-eaters under control, and they lie down watchfully. "One last hurrah is not a language I'm speaking," says Messier, the 35-year-old New York Rangers captain. "Sometimes I feel like I could play for another 10 years. And there's still only a handful of guys who can put up the numbers Wayne can. He's skating as well as he has in the last three or four years."
The subject, of course, is New York's off-season free-agent addition of Messier's golfing partner, the NHL's alltime leading scorer, fella by the name of Gretzky. There was a time, from 1979-80 to 1987-88, to be precise, when the one-two punch of Messier and Gretzky—both of whom play center, one like a bull, one like a matador—wreaked havoc throughout the league. Teammates for nine seasons during the glory days of the run-'n'-gun Edmonton Oilers, possessors of 10 Stanley Cup rings between them, winners of 11 regular-season MVP awards and three Stanley Cup MVP trophies, Messier and Gretzky are hockey's version of Ruth and Gehrig. But time reels everyone in sooner or later, and Gretzky, like Messier, will turn 36 in January. Counting playoff, Canada Cup, World Cup, All-Star, exhibition and regular-season games, these two have logged more ice time in the last 17 years than Canadian Club. Their speed has diminished, if not exactly fled, and injuries (Gretzky's back and Messier's shoulder and wrist) linger ever longer. The Gretz-and-Mess show on Broadway is certain to have irresistible commercial appeal, but how long can it possibly run? "My wife, Janet, asked me if I'd retire after this year if we won a Stanley Cup with the Rangers," Gretzky says. "I told her, 'Nope, I'll try to win another one.' "
Questions about Gretzky's age resurfaced during last month's World Cup. After proving himself Canada's best forward in the opening three rounds of the tournament, Gretzky was rendered largely ineffective by the tighter checking he encountered in the championship round, a best-of-three series that Canada lost to a younger, faster U.S. squad. "The naysayers have doubts about signing older guys," says Rangers general manager Neil Smith, who in July got Gretzky's name on an incentive-laden two-year, $10 million deal. "People wonder whether Wayne and Mark will still have enough gas in their tanks to perform in the playoffs. But these guys know how to win. I'm proud to be the general manager who gave our fans a chance to see Wayne Gretzky in a Rangers uniform, even if it's only for a couple of years. I hope he'll make those people who've been negative about him eat their words."
Never underestimate the rejuvenative powers of revenge. Gretzky, who hasn't had his hands on the Cup since being traded from Edmonton to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, has a well of pride that's almost as deep as his stack of scoring records is high. Stung by criticism last year that he was more concerned about himself than the Kings, Gretzky is out to prove that old number 99 is still a lot like the number 99 of old. In New York he will have a supporting cast that Los Angeles couldn't surround him with for the past two years: Nine Rangers participated in the World Cup, the most of any NHL team. "Last year was the toughest of my career," Gretzky says. "I told Kings management from Day One that we had to go after two or three quality guys because we weren't good enough to win with what we had. When nothing was done, I felt I owed it to myself to say something. I was at a crossroads of my career."
Before last January's NHL All-Star Game, Gretzky said that if Los Angeles wasn't going to make a major midseason deal that would enable it to compete for the Cup, it should trade him. This ultimatum caught hockey people by surprise. Gretzky was the Kings' captain and biggest draw, and most observers believed that his influence with the L.A. front office—influence he denied having—had contributed greatly to the makeup of the club. After Gretzky made his demand, the anti-Gretzky backlash was swift and unexpectedly widespread, considering his longstanding reputation as a goodwill ambassador for the sport.
"The Kings wanted to rebuild the hockey club," Gretzky says. "It was probably the right move, but no one told me that's what they were doing. So I forced their hand and ended up being portrayed as the bad guy."
When it became clear that the Kings would accommodate Gretzky's wishes and trade him, the Rangers were one of the clubs that pursued a deal for the Great One. Smith had already asked Messier about Gretzky. Smith knew the two players were close, but he wanted to be sure New York's chemistry wouldn't be thrown out of balance if Gretzky joined the Rangers. "Over the years Mark and I had chatted about all the guys he had played with," Smith says, "and Mark had mentioned several times that if I could ever get Wayne, to do everything I could to do it. But we weren't going to give up players and draft choices unless Wayne would sign a new contract and commit for two years."
As a first step toward a trade, L.A. gave the Rangers permission to talk to Gretzky about a contract. But Gretzky had doubts about going to New York. At the time, the Rangers, who won the Cup in 1994, were playing well, and if New York failed to go all the way after adding him, Gretzky figured he would take the blame. But while he was mulling over his options with New York, Mike Keenan, the coach and general manager of the St. Louis Blues, jumped in and gave the Kings three prospects and two draft choices for Gretzky, confident he could sign the Great One to a new contract before he became a free agent on July 1.
His confidence turned out to be misplaced. After the Blues beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round of the playoffs, they lost the first two games of the next series to the heavily favored Detroit Red Wings. "I was singled out by Mike [Keenan] as the guy who lost Game 2," Gretzky recalls. "I could handle that. That's part of his responsibility as coach, to motivate guys. But that same night, Jack Quinn, the team president, called my agent, Mike Barnett, and took the Blues' contract offer [a reported $21 million for three years] off the table. The money had already been agreed to. We were just discussing the length of the deferred payments and the interest. You want to play for people who believe in you. If that's all the faith they had in me—to take a deal off the table after one bad game—right then I decided I would never sign with the Blues, which I'd had every intention of doing. Heck, I'd already put down $9,000 for four season tickets to the Cardinals."
Keenan apologized to Gretzky for his outburst, and the Blues came back to win three of the next four games against Detroit. They finally lost to the Red Wings in double overtime in Game 7. Gretzky's inspired play was a big reason St. Louis nearly pulled off the upset, and his stats in the playoffs—two goals and 14 assists in 13 games—were not exactly those of someone ready to contemplate the sunset from a rocking chair. Gretzky loved playing on a line with his pal Brett Hull, but the damage to his pride had been done. "My wife's from St. Louis, and every two or three days for the next two months she'd ask me, Are you going to sign again with the Blues?' " Gretzky says. "I'm the type of guy who changes his mind every other day about whether I hate golf or not. But I gave her the same answer every time: 'No way.' "