Even the name sounds iconic: Messier. In 1994 the bellicose Madison Square Garden poets—the deli workers, de-liverymen and god-knows-what-they-do characters who dance and shout insults near the rafters—converted it to Messiah. No one calls him that now, of course; it's a relic of festive times. The New York Rangers fell apart when he left, in '97, and even with him back, they remain in a drought. Messier, in his 25th professional season, occupies a position somewhere between star and role player-with-portfolio. Among the 5,500 men who have played in the NHL, only Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, took part in more games than Messier has. He is not only the last man remaining from the Edmonton Oilers' best teams, but he is also the last Cincinnati Stinger, the last Indianapolis Racer, the last man left from the entire World Hockey Association. He has gone from being a passionate, young roughneck to a passionate and thoughtful elder. Glen Sather, the Rangers' general manager, who coached Messier in Edmonton from 1979-80 through '88-89, says, "In the beginning I would go to him with a suggestion and let him think he came up with the answer. Now I go to him with a problem and let him tell me the solution." His name and his presence still evoke a broad catalog of images, nearly all of them quasi-heroic, especially the victory he guaranteed against the New Jersey Devils in the 1994 semifinals. The four points and the hat trick he had that night are as impressive a performance as any modern athlete can claim. Where his stature matters most, in the Rangers' locker room, he remains a figure of reverence.
What no one is sure of now are his abilities. The 2003 edition of the Hockey Scouting Report all but dismisses him: "There are few better big-game players in NHL history than Messier, but the past is the past." He has been called the greatest leader in sports so often that his career as an after-dinner speaker is assured. The last half decade, though, has been humbling. When asked recently whether he has ever lost confidence, he said, "Pick any one of the last five years." This season has started unevenly for the Rangers and might continue to be vexing. Messier, however, has excelled. In November he scored goals in three straight games and had four goals in six games. Last year he played 41 games and had seven goals. This year it took him only 15 games to get seven, and through Sunday he had 10, one fewer than Mario Lemieux.
Messier is consistently among the first players to leave the ice after a Rangers' practice, but he is rarely idle while he's out there. His eyes appear always to be scouting the rink, he seems always to have a task at hand. His attention to the details of the game is meticulous and surprising in someone whose skills are both superior and mature. Recently, while the rest of the team worked on a drill from which Messier had been excused—the bright student exempt from remedial work—he slowly lined up a row of pucks so that against the ice they looked like perforations on a sheet of white paper. The pucks were 20 feet from the goal. The goal was empty. He raised his stick until the blade pointed at the ceiling, then he brought it down slowly and deliberately, sending each puck toward a different area of the net, as if to see whether after all these years there was something new to be discovered about the physics of the rink, the flight of the puck. A master casually reinforcing the muscle memory.
Messier as a young man had a panoply of skills. If you could design a hockey player, you would make him big, strong, fast, tough, fearless, smart, skilled, determined and remorseless. Great players have sometimes had only some of these attributes. Messier had all of them. Furthermore, he had no significant limitations. He skated powerfully and, because of how strong he was, with exceptional balance and agility. That meant that he could pretty much catch any player he wanted to hit or strip the puck from. His capacity for reaching top speed in only a few strides gave him wagonloads of breakaways and shorthanded chances. Because he was so big (6'1", 210 pounds), he frequently hurt people when he hit them, and his balance ensured that he didn't fall or take himself out of the play. Not only could he skate fast, but he could also perform the elements of the game—passing, shooting and stickhandling—in full flight. This forced other players to concede him room. If you played him too close, he might leave you behind. And it was dangerous to crowd him. He was resentful of company and liable to violence. " Messier doesn't play the game square," Don Cherry once said. "He's like Gordie Howe: You bother him, and there's nothing he won't do to you. He could end your career."
Messier didn't end anyone's career, but he accumulated a rap sheet. In 1984 he was suspended 10 games for breaking the jaw of the Calgary Flames' Jamie Macoun, who had hit him from behind. In '88 Messier got six games off for striking the Vancouver Canucks' Rich Sutter in the mouth with the blade of his stick. People who saw it say that Sutter removed pieces of hockey tape from his mouth. In the playoffs one year Messier and New Jersey's Scott Stevens went into the corner and, according to Rangers goalie Mike Richter, "You couldn't even see what happened, it took place so quickly, but Messier came out of the corner skating toward the bench with his hands held out for a new stick, and Stevens was on his knees holding his head. Messier had broken his stick against Stevens. And at the time Messier played with an aluminum stick."
Messier has big, hay-baler's hands, thick shoulders and a small, intent and thoughtful face. His wide, almond-shaped eyes and bald head give him a vaguely Asian look, a man who can make things happen in Hong Kong. The eyes are famously, almost lyrically, expressive—belligerent, glowering, furious, indignant and intolerant of resistance. "Like the eyes of an eagle," John Davidson once said. Cherry, less poetically, described them as "Charlie Manson eyes." Part of what makes Messier so disturbing as an opponent is the suggestion in his eyes that he is occasionally only half under control. "When I first came into the league," says Rangers wing Matthew Barnaby, "if you hit him in the corner, you kind of stood back to see what would happen. Is he going to fight? Is he going to hit you? I don't fear too many guys in this league, but there's always been that aura about him that's different from everyone else's. He doesn't know what he's going to do himself."
Hockey helmets exaggerate a player's appearance. Without their helmets many of them look diminished. Stevens, for example, doesn't look quite as menacing without his helmet. Messier's old Winn-Well helmet appears to be clamped down on his head like a rivet. It looks as if it has to be unscrewed to be taken off. Around the Rangers' locker room he sometimes wears a white terry cloth robe, like a boxer, that has stitched on the breast MOOSE, because in Edmonton he was known as the Moose on the Loose.
Messier was never the brainiest player in the game—Wayne Gretzky, Doug Gilmour, Lemieux and Steve Yzerman were more adept at thinking their way through the intricacies and possibilities, but Messier is a very intelligent player. He knows when to look and where to look, and he is capable of making precise and delicate plays at moments when they are the unexpected choices. He is as smart as he needs to be. None of those other four players had the array of talents that Messier has. He is also a bit of a riverboat gambler. He makes plays that are risky and sometimes they fail. No one is 100% in the NHL.
What about now? The succinct scouting report on Messier at 41 might be, "Aggressive, strong, nasty, solid skills, good vision, a warrior, can hurt you in all areas. Probably don't want to cross him." He is no longer one of the league's biggest players, but he is not small, either. He still skates with authority and power, and only the fleetest skaters can elude him. He's as good a playmaker as he ever was. His conditioning is superb. He's immensely reliable. He no longer intimidates simply by his presence, but as Rangers coach Bryan Trottier says, "I still don't think you want to make him mad."
He has been surpassingly adaptable. The notable players nearly as old as he is—defenseman Chris Chelios of the Detroit Red Wings, center Adam Oates of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, center Ron Francis of the Carolina Hurricanes and Stevens—are playing a game stylistically similar to the one they played as young men. The current version is refined and more intelligent and circumspect, surely, but it doesn't diverge materially from its former embodiment. Messier arrived in the league as a fourth-line banger in 1979-80. He had played 47 games the season before in the WHA, and the only time he scored was when a goalie misplayed his dump-in. Messier was a close observer, though, and he improved quickly. When the Oilers needed another center, he was moved from the wing. The decade of dominance followed.