Midway through the third period of last week's NHL All-Star game, Wayne Gretzky was, as usual, the focus of attention. One person looking at Gretzky particularly closely was his Edmonton Oiler teammate, Mark Messier, who had the puck just inside the blue line. Messier has one of the most respected wrist shots in the league, and as he glided toward the net, Goaltender Pelle Lindbergh of the Prince of Wales Conference awaited Messier's release. But Messier had spotted Gretzky coming off the boards. Instead of firing full blast, Messier changed up and slid the puck half speed, so that Gretzky, streaking in front of the net, was easily able to deflect the shot past Lindbergh.
"A classic Messier play," said Campbell Conference Coach Roger Neilson. "He's such a big guy you can't knock, him off the puck. He's so fast you don't want to go out and challenge him. The goalie has to respect his wrist shot because you don't know when he'll let go. And he's still got the finesse to put the puck on Gretzky's stick in the right spot."
That's high praise for one so young, but in the 22-year-old Messier's case, it's deserved, because he is, quite simply, the best left wing in the NHL. At week's end he was the league's No. 4 scorer with 86 points. Gretzky led, as usual, with, ho-hum, 140. Denis Savard of Chicago had 90, Mike Bossy of the Islanders 88, but each had played one more game than Messier, who also ranked fifth in goal-scoring with 38. Number 38, against Quebec last Friday, was a game winner and it kept alive a personal point streak that had reached 13 games. Barring injury, Messier is likely to break Johnny Bucyk's 12-year-old scoring record of 116 points for left wings.
Messier's binge has coincided with a surge by the Oilers. At the end of November, Edmonton was 11-9-6 and Messier had 28 points. Since then, he has gotten 58 points in 31 games, and the Oilers have gone 20-7-4 to raise their record to 31-16-10 and take over first place in the Smythe Division. "Mark always had the talent," says Gretzky. "But when we first came into the league together four years ago, he had a tendency to be awed just by being here. He would sit around my apartment sometimes and say, 'Can you believe we're playing against Guy Lafleur tomorrow? Or Marcel Dionne?' Mark wasn't sure he belonged. Now he knows he not only belongs but should be as good or better than those guys."
And he is. Trouble is, not that many people outside Edmonton, which happens to be where Messier grew up, are aware of it. The reason is simple: Gretzky. Playing hockey on the same team with the Great One is an excellent way to get yourself on an American Express commercial. Messier has been in Gretzky's wake since 1978, when at 17 he signed his first professional contract, with the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA. Only days earlier the financially strapped Racers had sold Gretzky, also 17, to the Oilers. Then, in 1979, Messier too, landed in Edmonton. Since then Messier has steadily improved, scoring 12 goals that first season, 23 the next and 50 in 1981-82. Clearly, he's a maturing star. Still, who notices the vice-president when he's standing next to the president? Who remembers who finished second in the Masters?
Glen Sather, the Oilers' president/G.M./coach/waterboy, shrugs when asked if Messier is getting the credit he deserves. "Is he the best left wing in hockey?" asks Sather rhetorically. "I'm not going to say that and put pressure on Mark. He certainly has the tools to be as good as anyone." Messier was a first-team All-Star at the end of last season, and he's on his way to an even better season in '82-83. Quebec's Michel Goulet, Chicago's Al Secord, Philadelphia's Brian Propp and the Islanders' John Tonelli are fine left wings, but would Sather trade Messier even-up for any of them? No way. He's in a class by himself.
Although he'd be the No. 1 star on most teams, Messier doesn't seem at all bothered by being second banana to Gretzky in Edmonton. "This year I've started to get some attention," he says, "and I can't understand how Wayne takes it. I need my space. That's why when the season's over, I just get out of town and travel. There are enough pressures to deal with in the game without having all that other outside stuff."
Last week the lobby of the Long Island Marriott, which was where most of the All-Stars stayed, was swarming with kids looking for autographs. Whenever Messier returned to the hotel, he couldn't wait to get to his room and hide. Once, when someone suggested meeting in the hotel restaurant, Messier asked, "How's it look down there? Crowded?"
Traditionally, left wings haven't had to worry much about attracting a crowd. To be sure, there have been great marksmen at that position, most notably Bobby Hull. But in general more fame has accrued to centers, like Jean Beliveau, Phil Esposito and Gretzky, and to right wings, like the immortals Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe, and such recent stars as Lafleur, Bossy and Lanny McDonald. One reason leftwingers don't score as much as their linemates do is that most centers shoot lefthanded, and it's easier for them to pass the puck right than left. That has been true especially since the introduction of the curved stick, with which passing off the backhand is tricky. Messier has had the good fortune this season to play mostly on a line centered by Ken Linseman, who passes to both sides equally well.
In addition, left wings traditionally have been big, rugged muckers who are more adept at digging the puck out of corners and administering bone-rattling checks than they are at shooting. At 6 feet and 207 pounds, Messier is big—his nickname is Moose, which was hung on him by his brother "because I have such a big butt"—and he can deliver a mean check. But Messier's similarity to the stereotype ends with his size. "He's so fast that he can just swoop right by," says Black Hawk Defenseman Doug Wilson. "And once he's past you, the only way to stop him is to take a penalty. He's always flying." Adds Washington defender Rod Langway, who remembers Messier from his WHA days as a hard-nosed, drop-the-gloves-and-fight type of player, "You could tell that if he ever used his skills just for playing, he'd be outstanding. Now that he's doing it, he's scary."