Mark Messier is a hockey center by trade, and being one, he thought he knew who can play the position and who cannot. His best friend, Wayne Gretzky, redefined the position.
Which was why Messier started laughing when Jari Kurri skated out to take the opening faceoff against him during the King-Ranger exhibition at Phoenix. The Kings, from the bench, saw Messier laughing and talking to Kurri.
King Coach Barry Melrose asked Kurri what Messier had said to him. Kurri answered reluctantly.
"Messier stood and laughed at him," Melrose said. "He said, 'Jari, you're no center!' "
Melrose paused for dramatic effect, setting up the punch line.
"Well, the guy who can't play center is only about twenty-something points ahead of Messier," he said, laughing.
Actually, Kurri is seven points ahead of Messier among the league's scoring leaders, but Melrose's point is well taken. Kurri's resurgence has been one of the most unexpected stories in the NHL this season.
One of the best right wings in the game smoothly switched positions, taking the place of the injured Gretzky. And Kurri has been among the league's scoring leaders all season. Now, he is third with 16 goals and 48 points, trailing only Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux and Buffalo's Pat LaFontaine. Kurri will soon equal last season's total output of 23 goals and 60 points.
His inspired play not only stopped the Kings from making a multi-player deal for a center with Detroit before the season opener, it has helped lift the Kings into second place overall in the NHL. In the Smythe Division standings, they lead second-place Calgary by five points. Any pride Kurri takes from this season's accomplishments doesn't bubble easily to the surface. He doesn't boast. Much as he didn't complain when everything around him seemed to turn sour last season.
It takes some gentle prodding for him to even acknowledge that, yes, he is pleased.
"I needed to have a good start to put everything behind me," Kurri said. "There were those people who counted me out. Stuff went on. Personally, I wanted to prove I could still play this high level of hockey.
"It feels good."
To understand how remarkable Kurri's season has been, it is necessary to review the misfortune of last season. Expectations in Los Angeles were high when the Kings got Kurri in a three-team deal with Philadelphia and Edmonton, giving up popular defenseman Steve Duchesne and checking center Steve Kasper in May of 1991. Almost everyone thought Gretzky and Kurri would pick right up from their Edmonton days.
And after Kurri scored three goals in the season opener against Winnipeg, fans were asking:
--Where would the Stanley Cup parade start?
--Who would take the first lap around the Forum with the Cup, Dave Taylor or Wayne Gretzky?
--Should we name our next child Jari?
Less than a month later, there still were questions. Negative ones. Kurri's name almost always surfaced during King-bashing in the regular season and after the first-round playoff loss to Edmonton.
He took heat in three nations--the United States and Canada, of course, but especially back home in Finland, where he is like the Michael Jordan of Helsinki.
"It is hard to hide," Kurri says.
No one there was crass about it. That's simply not the Finnish way. Still, Kurri was questioned everywhere he went by countrymen wondering what had happened to their idol.
Kurri simply took it. He needed about a month before his injured ankle healed enough for him to resume training. Then he began working out, playing a lot of tennis with Winnipeg's Teemu Selanne.
"He is the nicest guy I ever met," said Selanne, who is second in scoring among NHL rookies. "He is the idol of every young Finnish player. He is such a good example for young guys like me.
"He said last year wasn't as bad as everybody said. People should realize it's not easy to play with Wayne Gretzky because of the expectations. This was no problem with Jari. He had 10 excellent years in the NHL, so nobody worried about one that wasn't so good."
And Kurri wasn't the only struggling King last season. Gretzky will be the first to acknowledge that he wasn't pleased with his own performance.
"If you look at the whole team, no one played that well," King right wing Tomas Sandstrom said. "There was a lot of pressure on Jari coming in. He's such a great player. You can't say he had a bad year. It's always tough when you've gone to Europe and you come back to the NHL."
Kurri could have used his season two years ago in Milan, Italy, as an excuse. Or he could have pointed a finger at former King coach Tom Webster or his teammates. Instead, he tried to work his way out of the slump.
Several players thought Webster gave up on Kurri too quickly.
"I'm not sure if there was the ability to read the situation and make the proper adjustments," Marty McSorley said. "With Jari and Wayne on the ice, I don't think (Webster) knew how to help those guys. The situation was far from ideal for Jari."