SPORTS

Broadway Mark Messier

A former Edmonton Oiler lights up New York

D’ARCY JENISH March 30 1992
SPORTS

Broadway Mark Messier

A former Edmonton Oiler lights up New York

D’ARCY JENISH March 30 1992

Broadway Mark Messier

SPORTS

A former Edmonton Oiler lights up New York

After a successful night’s work, Mark Messier straddles a bar stool at the Play By Play Lounge in Madison Square Garden. His big hands cradle a bottle of Rolling Rock ale, and his rugged, angular face bears the smile of a man who appears to have everything. The 31-year-old hockey star is savoring another New York Ranger victory. To his left sits Carrie Nygren, a tall, blond Swedish model and actress whom Messier is dating. Across the table are his sister Mary-Kay, 29, and brother Paul, 34, who share his 73rd-floor Manhattan condo and handle his off-ice business affairs. But despite his contented smile, Messier remains restless and ambitious, eagerly embracing a daunting challenge: leading the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in 52 years. “The players talk about what it would be like to skate around Madison Square Garden with the Cup,” he said. “And we talk about what it would be like to have a parade down Broadway. You’ve got to visualize these things if you want to make them happen.”

For many Canadian hockey fans, Messier is best remembered as a critical cog in the Edmonton Oilers juggernaut that captured five Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1990. He was the muscular and menacing centreman who played behind superstar Wayne Gretzky, helping to make the Oilers a formidable offensive machine. But last Oct. 4, the Oilers traded Messier to the Rangers in a deal that made him the highest-paid player in the National Hockey League, with salary and bonuses of $3.5 million. For most of this season, Messier has been the team’s leading point scorer—and among the NHL’s Top 5—driving the Rangers to first overall in the 22-team league. Although an NHL players strike could disrupt or even derail the playoffs, which are scheduled to begin on April 8, Messier said that he is eagerly anticipating another a run at the Cup, despite immense pressure from the notoriously demanding New York fans and media. “I think that kind of pressure is good,” he said, “because winning a Stanley Cup doesn’t just happen. Putting a little fear into the players sometimes brings out the best in them.”

Messier has already made his mark in the highly competitive New York market. Sportswriter Frank Brown, who has covered the Rangers for 22 years, said that the Big Apple’s immense media exposure turns star athletes into “monstrous personalities.” Over the past decade, the Rangers have not had a prominent superstar to compete with the likes of former Mets outfielder Darryl Strawberry in baseball, Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor in football or Knicks centre Patrick Ewing in basketball.

But Messier’s presence, and the Rangers’ run at first place overall, have generated renewed interest. “He’s put the Rangers back in the spotlight,” said Rangers general manager Neil

Smith, a 38-year-old native of Scarborough, Ont. “He’s raised the prestige level of the franchise in our market.”

Both Smith and head coach Roger Neilson say that they wanted Messier for his on-ice leadership qualities after two straight seasons in which the Rangers had challenged for first place in the NHL’s Patrick Division, only to falter in March and fall quickly in the playoffs. There is no doubting his intense desire to win. “I can never shrug off a defeat,” said Messier. “I can remember a friend of mine, a rookie and a real competitor, on a team that hadn’t done well for years. He’d be upset after a loss and the veterans would say, ‘Listen, don’t worry

about it. There’s nothing you can do.’ That’s why some teams never get turned around. They accept losing.”

Messier carries his attitudes off the ice, as well. He rarely fraternizes with opponents, he says, and for 10 years never said a word to some members of the Calgary Flames, the Oilers’ archrivals. But among his new teammates, Messier is admired—even revered. Tie Domi describes him as “the best guy in the world,” a living legend who offers him candid hockey advice and a big-brother figure who

takes an interest in his personal life. Colin Campbell, a Rangers assistant coach, said that Messier’s personality is so forceful that he even intimidates the coaching staff.

Several times this season,

Messier has given his teammates pep talks when he saw their play slipping. At the end of a recent 90-minute workout—on the morning after a 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals—Nielson summoned his players to one side of the rink for a brief lecture on puck pursuit in the opposition’s end. He then headed for the locker room—and Messier took over. With his teammates gathered around him, the captain spoke quietly for 10 minutes. Neither he nor the other players would reveal what he said. But the next evening, the Rangers ended a three-game losing streak by whipping the Chicago Black Hawks.

It is a Monday night, and Paul Messier and his sister Mary-Kay are watching the Rangers battle the Capitals from their usual seats in the family’s sky suite at Madison Square Garden. The suite, which is included in Mark’s contract, is carpeted and comfortable, and the Messiers have a dozen guests in

for the game. But Paul sits alone, elbows on his knees, jaw resting on his hands—deeply immersed in the game. Suddenly, when the referee calls a penalty against the Rangers, he erupts, leaping from his seat and denouncing the whistle-blower with a string of expletives. Paul is not the only one watching intently. In the second period, he is summoned to the phone to take a call from his father, Doug, who is viewing the game via satellite dish from Mark’s oceanfront estate in Hilton Head, S.C. “He just wanted to know what happened to Mark on that last play,” Paul Messier says after returning to his seat, “and I told him it looked like he jammed his hand.”

For the Messiers, hockey and family have

always been synonymous. Paul said that he and his siblings grew up watching their father play semi-professional hockey in Portland, Ore. Father Doug, 55, who was also a teacher, coached both his sons when they played Tier II junior hockey as teenagers growing up in the Edmonton suburb of St. Albert. Paul went on to play four seasons in the minor leagues in North America—he only made it up to the NHL for nine games with the now-defunct Colorado Rockies—followed by seven pro seasons in Mannheim, Germany. Mark played just five games in the minors before jumping to the Oilers, where

he remained until last October—when the brothers received news of the trade over a cellular phone while golfing at Hilton Head.

For his first couple of months in New York, Messier stayed at the Westbury Hotel and dined frequently at its exclusive restaurant, the Polo. Maître d’ Michel Pimienta said that he assigned Messier a personal table and introduced him to such celebrity clients as former sportscaster Howard Cosell and rock singer Cyndi Lauper. Messier has since leased a luxury condominium in a 78-storey, sleek black-glass-and-metal tower two doors down from Carnegie Hall on West 57th Street. He keeps one of his three cars in the city, a 1989 Bentley that he bought from Gretzky, and uses

it mainly to drive to Rangers practices in Rye, N.Y., 40 km northeast of Manhattan.

After Mark’s move to New York, Paul and Mary-Kay formed Messier Management International Inc. to handle their brother’s business affairs. Paul retired from pro hockey in November, 1990. Mary-Kay left a marketing job at IBM Canada Ltd. in Edmonton in January to move to New York. Their parents, Doug and his wife, Mary Jean, now live year-round at Mark’s Hilton Head estate, which includes an A-frame main house, a guesthouse that sleeps 16 people, tennis courts and an in-ground

swimming pool.

When he signed with the Rangers, Messier relied on his father and brother to negotiate a five-year contract. Although he would not divulge details, he said that the deal contains an escalation clause that will allow him to remain one of the three highest-paid players in the league in each of the next four seasons, providing he meets certain performance targets. The brother-and-sister team also have negotiated product endorsement deals for their famous sibling: one to produce a series of limited-edition lithographs depicting Messier in action—$565 apiece—and the other to endorse a line of sports-card binders and school products. “He’s a clean-living guy who works hard every night,” said David Tarica, a Zimbabwe native whose New Jerseybased company makes the school products. “This is New York—you don’t find that in New York very often.” But Messier’s main focus remains playing the game, even as a strike threatens to j_ disrupt the NHL season. In I tense talks over a new collecs tive bargaining agreement, y the players are demanding “ fewer restrictions on their ability to move from one team to another as free agents, as

well as a better arbitration system in salary disputes and a larger share of playoff revenues. But the owners contend that they cannot afford such changes: according to press reports, they will collectively lose $17 million this year, down from a record profit of $55 million last year. A players strike would also force the CBC, which has the TV rights to the playoffs, to resort to reruns and old movies. But for Messier, the contract dispute is just so much background noise. He clearly sees himself not walking a picket line, but carrying hockey’s most hallowed trophy, the Stanley Cup, down a confetti-filled Broadway.

D’ARCY JENISH