Thursday, January 12, 2006

Messier's Legacy Will Live Forever

On a night in which they honored The Captain, raising his Number 11 to the rafters, the Rangers also were victorious on the scoreboard- posting a 5-4 OT win courtesy of a Jaromir Jagr goal over Edmonton- Mark Messier's first NHL club who he helped lead to five Stanley Cups.

Ultimately though, a soldout Madison Square Garden crowd only came for one reason. To finally pay tribute to the greatest Ranger to ever lace'em up. In an emotional ceremony which lasted over an hour in front of an energized audience which sounded eerily similar to how the building rocked when Messier helped deliver the Stanley Cup on June 14, 1994 to break a 54-year drought, the Rangers gave their beloved hero a night he nor anyone who witnessed it will ever forget.

It started with a video tribute to Messier which appeared on Gardenvision to thunderous applause. When it ended, the master of ceremonies John Davidson introduced him to another loud reception. As a teary-eyed 44-year-old hockey legend walked past current Rangers who clapped, the noise was deafening. It didn't matter that this once great leader was bawling his eyes out like a kid. That in a nutshell is what made him so endearing to New York. Like most of us, he had very special human qualities and wore his emotions on his sleeves. Hard to believe this was the same man who was revered by teammates and feared by opponents for intimidation tactics.

They trotted out almost the entire Cup championship roster. Unfortunately, Conn Smythe winner Brian Leetch couldn't attend due to a Bruins game against the Kings but taped a special message. Neither was leading regular season pointscorer Sergei Zubov for similar circumstances playing for Dallas. Also absent were Alexander Karpovtsev and Greg Gilbert. But included was the last Ranger to have his sweater retired in Mike Richter, who saw his Number 35 go up two years ago against Minnesota. The ever popular Adam Graves also was on hand along with former teammates Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish, Glenn Anderson, Esa Tikkanen, Steve Larmer, Jeff Beukeboom, Jay Wells, Doug Lidster, Alexei Kovalev, Sergei Nemchinov, Stephane Matteau, Brian Noonan, Joey Kocur, Nick Kypreos, Mike Hudson, Ed Olczyk and Glenn Healy.

Next up were former GM Neil Smith and Coach Mike Keenan, who both were received well along with Assistant Coach Colin Campbell.

With the crowd in a frenzy chanting, "Mess-ier, Mess--ier, Mess---ier" in tribute of their captain, the three Blueshirts to have their numbers retired including Rod Gilbert (#7), Eddie Giacomin (#1) and Richter (#35) all came out with the '94 goalie drawing big cheers to chants of "Rich-ter, Rich--ter, Rich---ter."

Messier was presented with expensive gifts which ranged from fishing equipment and a chair for expeditions to a priceless portrait of the '94 team, a sculpture of an eagle to the Mark Messier Skyway Foundation at Hackensack Memorial, a $211,000 check to Messier's favorite charity The Tomorrow's Children Fund along with an all paid expense family trip to Ireland.

The first guest speaker was the man who rode shotgun for Messier in the classy Graves. Always a fan favorite, he was serenaded with "Grav-y, Grav--y, Grav---y" chants before he spoke. "I couldn't do anything but smile when I look at Mess," he said to roars of approval. Graves then went onto describe what his prototypical hockey player would have. Not surprisingly, the characteristics summed up Messier's remarkable career.

Next up was a taped message from Leetch, who flashed back to when he was a rookie playing against Messier. He spoke about how in that game, Messier speared him and there was no penalty, which made him thankful a few years later when Messier was on his side to dish out that sort of punishment to opponents.

Finally, Richter spoke and quipped, "They got you a barbershop chair" to laughter. The likeable netminder spoke highly of Messier's extreme joy in other teammates' accomplishments, even remarking, "I think [Messier] was more excited than Leetch about him winning The Conn Smythe."

He also told a story about how Messier bought then rookie Darren Langdon in '95 a brand new suit, which showed what kind of teammate he was.

That's when his moment came. Introduced again by Davidson to another familiar chorus of "Mess-ier, Mess--ier, Mess---ier," it was finally time for the man of the hour to speak. An emotional wreck once again, he broke down while thanking the crowd repeatedly. As he gathered himself, the man who referred to The Garden crowd as "The Garden Faithful," a day before in a letter to the fans at another teary-eyed press conference, he once again made mention of it.

"Tonight's celebration was called 'A Celebration of the Captain," Messier said. "But I'm not sure it shouldn't be called a 'Celebration of the Garden Faithful.'"

As an energized crowd which stood for the entirety and cheered, he thanked family, friends, teammates and coaches including a special mention of Ranger President and GM Glen Sather. He credited Sather for being almost like a second father figure to his Dad Doug because "nobody believed in me more," which drew thunderous applause.

Not only did he recognize those people but also the ones who made this night possible. A true humanitarian, Messier thanked all the 'little people' who made MSG a special place to call home.

After he concluded his speech with three simple "thank yous" he lifted his arms to salute the crowd which will always hold him near and dear to their collective hearts.

Then Davidson introduced final surprise guest Dana Reeve, whose late husband Christopher, was one of the Rangers' biggest supporters. She then sang a Carole King classic "Now and Forever" in tribute to Messier, which was well received.

After all that, they finally brought Messier together with his family by the Rangers' goal to raise number 11 to the rafters. But before that, amazingly enough, the Stanley Cup which he won six times was waiting on the table for him to lift up one final time in front of adoring fans.

In essence, that's what all this was about. The man who helped lift The Curse and kick it out of the building for good. Nobody will ever forget how with his team facing elimination against the Devils how Messier guaranteed victory and backed it up with a natural hat trick in which his team trailed 2-0. It became known simply as "The Guarantee." To anyone who was fortunate enough to witness it, it's one of the greatest moments in sports history up there with other New York legends Joe Namath and Willis Reed.

Fittingly, he also tallied the winning goal in the deciding Game Seven against Vancouver, which helped cement his legend.

Sure. Having the Cup there was over the top. However, when one considers what Messier was able to accomplish here which so many other great players couldn't, it's understandable why 1994 is celebrated in this fashion.

As Davidson fittingly said, echoing broadcast partner Sam Rosen's Cup-clinching Game Seven call, "This one will last a Lifetime!"

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