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Mark Messier's LATE SHIFT
Alec Wilkinson
December 09, 2002
Why would the Rangers' 41-year-old captain keep playing a ferocious sport against men half his age? Because there's nothing he'd rather do
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December 09, 2002

Mark Messier's Late Shift

Why would the Rangers' 41-year-old captain keep playing a ferocious sport against men half his age? Because there's nothing he'd rather do

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Messier picked himself up as Herr followed the puck toward the corner. A Rangers player sent it back up the boards to Messier. Again it arrived at his feet. Herr wheeled toward Messier. This time Messier ignored the puck. As Herr arrived, Messier strode toward him and suddenly raised his elbow. Herr went down like someone in a cartoon who ran into a tree branch he hadn't seen. As Herr lay without moving, Messier circled him as if only the presence of the referees kept him from doing more harm. Herr was helped to the bench. The referees tossed Messier. "I understood the consequences of hitting Mark Messier—I wasn't trying to stir anything up—and I had heard he's a guy who takes it hard," Herr said, "but I didn't expect the straight-arm elbow to the jaw. I had no clue it was coming. I thought somebody else was going to come after me. I was too excited playing at the Garden to take proper notice. Anyway, I'm not going to walk into that elbow again. I was seeing stars."

When Messier was asked his side, he said, "I got the puck at my feet, and the guy hit me solidly, which is fine—that's what he's supposed to do. The second time I got it at my feet, he came back to me." Messier was taking his skates off after practice, wiping the ice shavings from the first one with his fingers.

"Were you trying to send a message?" He leaned over and began unlacing the second one. His face broke into one of those grins that seems to shut his eyes and split his face in two.

"Does that mean yes?"

He sat up, started to say something, then seemed to think better of it. Then still grinning, he said, "Let's just say that once was enough."

He is like the soldier who keeps signing up for another tour when everyone else goes home. You wonder what makes him do it. As his father says, he doesn't need the money. You can regard Messier's life as an admirable example of selfless and single-minded purpose. Or you can wonder if it doesn't reside among the further precincts of what is tolerable and perhaps sensible as social behavior. The soldier who keeps reenlisting often regards civilian life as a territory he is afraid to inhabit. Decisions intimidate him. He prefers the routine, the dependable, life looked after by someone else, the anxieties collapsed to a single concern: his performance. Messier seems motivated by a love of hard work's best result. By a deep pleasure in pursuit, right conduct and desire within a context. He also seems like someone whose ideals and philosophies equip him to inhabit another version of himself when the time comes. He doesn't seem at a loss for imagining another way to be.

He doesn't seem to welcome it, either. Pleasure seems fundamental to him. When he smiles, he smiles broadly. His enthusiasms are unrestrained. For all his dignity on the ice and in the locker room, perhaps no one has ever acted goofier with the Stanley Cup than Messier. The leaping, spastic dance that he did in 1994 as a Ranger when Game 7 was over. The huge openmouthed grin as he held the Cup and pumped it up and down. Year after year players accepted the Cup and held it with awe and reverence and a sense of occasion. Messier was the picture of unfettered joy.

A few weeks ago Messier went to a movie premiere in New York City. His father was there and his brother and a friend who taught Messier to fish in Hawaii, where Messier took his family the summer after the Rangers won the Cup. His girlfriend, Kim, was there and so were Leetch and his wife, Mary Beth. The movie was The Truth about Charlie, in which Messier's friend Tim Robbins has a role. Beforehand, Messier and the group had drinks at a Mexican restaurant, and someone mentioned a numbing hit that the Rangers' Ronald Petrovicky had delivered a few days earlier on the Tampa Bay Lightning's Ruslan Fedotenko. It was one of those car-crash hits. Fedotenko hadn't seen Petrovicky coming, and the impact was so forceful that Fedotenko's head snapped back. Leetch said the collision had made a terrible sound on the ice. Doug Messier said, "Got caught with his head down. You figure he won't do that again."

Messier stood at the bar with his enormous back to the room. A small man behind him somewhat timidly tapped him on the shoulder. Messier turned and saw that the man was standing with his hands on the shoulders of a boy. "I called my son when I saw who was in the bar," the man said later. "I told him, 'Get right over here.' " Messier borrowed a pen and signed a napkin for the boy, who seemed too overwhelmed to frame a sentence. When Messier asked if he played hockey, the best the boy could manage was a nod. It was left to his father, who was also nodding, to say, "He does. Definitely. Yes, he does."

The other people in the bar seemed to pay no attention to Messier, but when he left, nearly every head turned to watch him. As he walked the few blocks to the theatre—where he would pause on a red carpet for photographers who were saying, "Over here, Mark," and "This side, too, please," and "Maybe some with you together," so that he put his arm around Kim—he said, "This city, there's just so many great things going on. I wish I could turn back the clock 20 years."

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