His most virulent detractors now say it was a decade only and a decade ago. The accolades many of them gave him so generously have been withdrawn ("He's too old") or are reserved ("Let's see how he does") or have turned harsh ("He should have retired instead of coming back to the Rangers"). They say that he plays too often on the periphery and that his presence is no longer daunting. That the ice time he consumes comes at the expense of a younger player who might occupy the role Messier did in times past. Finally they ask, a trifle querulously, how he can be described as the greatest leader in sports when for the past five years he hasn't led his team into the playoffs. There is no definitive response to any of these objections—they involve matters of opinion—but to take them one at a time, nonetheless: Messier no longer plays a power forward's game because a game based on banging and wrestling with towering young men isn't sensible for a man his age, even one as strong as Messier. It is why he developed his abilities as a play-maker. He can no longer take over a game, but he can frequently impose his intentions a shift at a time. And he cannot be over-looked. As New York center Bobby Holik says, "He's still Mark Messier."
The argument about ice time usually includes the surmise that the Rangers organization hasn't got the nerve to tell Messier that he isn't the player he was and that he cannot expect to kill penalties and skate on the power play and assume the ice time of a first-or second-line forward. Messier is, on paper, the Rangers' third-line center, behind Eric Lindros and Holik, and possibly their fourth, behind Petr Nedved. Nevertheless, before Holik injured his hip, Messier was on the ice nearly as much as any other Rangers forward. Partly this was a result of Lindros's being suspended for a game, thrown out of a game and benched for most of another. It is not that Trottier is reluctant to tell Messier that he cannot have the time he once had. Trottier doesn't strike anyone who talks with him as hesitant, and if there was a visual aid for determination in the NHL before Messier, it was Trottier. Messier's ice time is accounted for by the fact that when Trottier scans the bench he is looking for players he can depend on; who know what to do in any situation; who will play, as Trottier says, "with composure and poise." Down a goal or two, the Rangers want Lindros on the ice. After that they would prefer Messier to Holik, a defensive specialist. Protecting a lead, they prefer Messier to Lindros. Which leaves Messier a second-line center.
Messier protects his privacy. With reporters his manner is cautious and polite to the point of being wary; he seems to recoil, as if he expects an unpleasant surprise in the package he is about to unwrap. Sather suggested that Messier might be interested in talking about the house that he built on Hilton Head Island, S.C. "It's one of those hurricane-proof Japanese houses," Sather said. "He researched the whole thing." When Messier is asked about it, he says, "Ah, well, I don't like to go into personal matters." He is careful about who he spends his time with, but among his friends he is unguarded. His nature is expansive and inclusive. He is known for his enthusiasms—he especially likes to fish and to travel—and for his openness to experience. He spends a lot of time with his mother and father, Mary-Jean and Doug, his brother, Paul, and his two sisters, Jennifer and Mary-Kay. Often some combination of them appear with him at social events. His sense for the rhythms of a team and its concerns, its manner and attitudes, clearly was influenced by the closeness of his family.
Messier believes that a team can succeed only when the players feel a commitment to one another that takes in more than their professional obligations, a commitment that is essentially social. "Because you take somebody to dinner," he says, "or let a player stay in your apartment or you lend him your car—it's a nice gesture and it makes someone feel good—but it's not the defining thing that makes or breaks your team. Those things are blown out of proportion. You have to know your people: where they came from, their relationships with their fathers and mothers, what's troubling them, what triggers an action. You want to know what lives underneath, and until you develop that relationship, you can't build a team bond. There's always sticking up for each other, but guys will do that because it's their job. If you don't know your people, it doesn't matter if you lend them your car."
What a leader must provide, he believes, is consistency. "You can't have someone be one sort of person one day and the next day be another," he says. "It's important to know what you stand for, to be true and unwavering. Everyone can read off you then, they know who you are. When you offer help or guidance, advice on problems, they can trust you. If you're not hiding anything, you can wear who you are on your sleeve."
Messier is fond of Pat Riley's remark, "There's winning, and there's misery." The desire to prevail, if it isn't selfless though, is not often welcomed in pro sports. Messier wants to be a member of a winning team; he doesn't want to win the scoring title every year or collect the most goals or break records. "He was a great teammate," Sather says of Messier's years in Edmonton. "When the score was 6-2 or 7-2, he was never the guy clamoring to get over the boards to pad his statistics. He always let the other guys do it."
Messier's singular devotion has caused him to be perceived as something of a solitary. The Rangers who were young men with him—Richter and defenseman Brian Leetch, for example—have married and begun families. Messier lives with his girlfriend, Kim Close, whom he met in Vancouver, but he has never been married. When asked why not, he says, "I didn't want to do anything halfheartedly or spread myself too thin and find that nothing was working. There are always sacrifices you have to make. Nothing comes without a cost."
As for the day when he dresses for the last time as a hockey player, he says, "We all know that things change, that permanence isn't a condition of life." And, "It's not like the subject has crept up on me in the last year or two." What he cares more about is finishing his career with passion. "You've got to play every game to win," he says. "What are you saving it for? As you grow older, you can accept the things that happen without losing the drive and focus you need. I think the biggest thing is not to get tainted or cynical. The longer you play, the more you know, and what you know isn't necessarily all to the good. So you try to hold on to your experience and knowledge while keeping your first-training-camp attitude and not letting things bother you. There's a fine line to staying focused and hungry to win. Following it is a good test, a good journey. When the end comes then, it's not a difficult thing. You continue the life you live, the way you think and behave, you go on as you are."
Older players are traditionally less tolerant when someone goes after them than younger players are. A player of Messier's age has to be concerned about a younger man, hopeful of making an impression, who handles him rudely. Gretzky, in remarks he made around the time of his retirement in 1999, seemed to suggest that the players had grown so much bigger than they were when his career began, and to acknowledge the possibility of one of them hurting him seriously. When Sather was asked if he was concerned that this might happen to Messier, he said, "Mark's the type of guy, if someone's going to bang him, they're going to pay the price."
The Rangers' preseason game in September against the Boston Bruins was a quiet and polite affair, except that it included a classical Messier moment. Early in the second period Messier, standing about three feet from the left quarter boards in the Bruins' end, received a pass at his feet. As he looked down, a young Bruins forward named Matt Herr charged toward him. Heir's shoulder caught Messier in the center of his chest, throwing him backward. His arms spread like wings, his feet flew apart and his tail banged down on the ice. It was a figure skater's fall, a citizen's fall. The next day Herr was asked why he had treated Messier with such disregard. "Honestly, I didn't know it was him," Herr said. "I was just trying to make the team. I played him like I would have played anybody else, but what happened next caught me off guard."