Messier turns on speed, power in 1 move Rangers star is impact player

NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- In his brief but colorful tenure here -- when he's not telephoning Madonna, taping an appearance on David Letterman's television show or making commercials and public appearances -- Mark Messier has left his imprint on the New York Rangers.

Recently, against the San Jose Sharks in overtime, he left it on an unsuspecting Brian Mullen.


As Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch maneuvered into position for a shot, Mullen turned to stop his charge. Messier anticipated the Shark's move and, with one lowered shoulder and a not insignificant portion of his stick, laid him out on the cold Madison Square Garden ice. An unfettered Leetch shot and scored, and the reborn Rangers had another victory.

"He's a bull out there," said Philadelphia Flyers scout Bill Barber, who saw the game. "A raging bull."


And in the brilliant 13-year career of the game's premier combination of strength and finesse, the rest of the National Hockey League has been little more than a china shop.

Only 30, Messier is one of just 32 players in NHL history to have scored 1,000 points. He has been named the league's Most Valuable Player, has played for five Stanley Cup champions and is second only to Wayne Gretzky, his longtime teammate, in all-time playoff scoring with 215 points. (Gretzky has 299.)

The late Bob Johnson, marveling at Messier's rare combination of speed and furious power, said watching him play was like watching "a thoroughbred in the wind."

And unlike Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, the sweet-skating, non-physical superstars who are the only two NHL players to earn more money, Messier has left his mark in another area -- generally around the face and ribs of opponents.

"He's like a man on a mission," San Jose forward Brian Lawton said. "He's a runaway truck out there, knocking over everything in his path."

Three times, league officials have had to suspend Messier -- once for leaving the imprint of his stick in Thomas Gradin's head, a second time for breaking Jamie Macoun's cheekbone and a third for loosening most of Rich Sutter's teeth.

"He can clear big gaps in the ice for his teammates," Lawton said. "He's made them quite a formidable team."

And put a smile on the face of Neil Smith, the Rangers general manager who engineered the trade for Messier on Oct. 4.


"Seeing Mark Messier in a Rangers uniform seemed like a fantasy to me for a while after he got here," Smith said. "It took a lot of slaps in the face for me to realize it was true."

Reality never has been a particularly pleasant subject for the long-suffering Rangers. That is why Smith went out and got Messier, whose five Stanley Cup titles in 12 years with Edmonton are two more than the Rangers have had in their 65-year history.

"I needed a change," said Messier, who felt the once-mighty Oilers were deteriorating around him and demanded a trade before the season. "I just had a gut feeling it was the time to move on."

The Rangers surrendered Bernie Nicholls, Steven Rice, Louie DeBrusk and $13 million over five years to get the gifted center, but it all looks like a bargain now.

"They love him here in New York. They just absolutely love him," said Mark Piazza, an assistant to Smith. "And I think he's really loving it here, too."

For a bachelor who admits he loves to party hard and drive fast, spending all of his previous life in provincial Edmonton led to some personal frustrations. Now, unleashed in the raucous canyons of Manhattan, this Western Canadian has become a tabloid celebrity.


Last month, he told reporters that Gretzky's movie-star wife, Janet Jones, was attempting to fix him up with Madonna, the rock icon.

"It was just a case of Janet trying to play matchmaker," Messier said with a laugh. "Madonna and I talked on the phone and we talked about maybe getting together sometime in the future.

"It's been more fun than I ever imagined," said Messier, who is one of only two Rangers to live in Manhattan. "I feel rejuvenated. I'm having a better time than I've had in a long, long time.

"I loved Edmonton, and maybe when my career is over, I'll look back and reminisce about those days. But right now, I'm here trying to make things happen in New York. I'm going to live for the future. I love it here."

The feeling is mutual.

Before his first Garden game, Messier received a standing ovation from the usually callous Garden fans when, during a spotlit ceremony at center ice, he was dramatically installed as the team's captain.


In 36 games with the Rangers, he has been their leading scorer with 16 goals and 32 assists . He has killed penalties and toiled on the power-play unit, and when the Rangers require a big goal, he is always there. New York has won four of five overtime games this season, and Messier has been on the ice for all four of the winning goals.

"Sometimes you just have to make things happen," he said. "You have to work hard, and that's what we've been doing. In my short stay here, I've really liked what I've seen of the talent here."

For the last decade or so, New York never has been short on talent. What the Rangers lacked, though, was size and strength at center ice, a consistently aggressive attitude and, most important in the minds of many Rangers, leadership in the dressing room.

Messier fills all three gaps -- particularly the last one.