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It's Back on Stick for Vet Messier

Ranger center enters 24th NHL season with Howe's marks in view, but return to playoffs the main focus.

October 05, 2003|Associated Press

NEW YORK — Mark Messier's long career has become a numbers game.

His leadership qualities can be summed up by six Stanley Cup championships in his 24-year NHL career.

His star quality is clear when you see he is in third place on the career scoring list, a mere six points behind Gordie Howe, whose total of 1,850 seemed unapproachable until a guy named Wayne Gretzky shattered the mark by 1,007 points.

Two new numbers have crept into the mix for Messier, and they are increasing each year.

He will turn 43 before this season reaches the All-Star break, a campaign he hopes will end a six-year run without a postseason appearance for him and the New York Rangers. Before this stretch, of which he spent three seasons in Vancouver, Messier missed the postseason only once, in 1993 -- the year before he led the Rangers to their first championship in 54 years.

Each summer, Messier spends time with his family in Hilton Head, S.C., and isn't heard from much. The feeling is usually one of optimism that he will return, because he always has. Yet there is still that doubt every time contract talks roll around.

"I've said the same for the last five years, my decision will always be made in the summertime," said Messier, who scored 18 goals last season. "I think you have to be honest as to whether you want to play for all the right reasons."

That has never been a problem for the man with the iron-cold stare and chiseled jaw. He no longer is the go-to guy on the ice. His minutes are down from his superstar days and he often finds himself centering New York's third or fourth lines.

"Mark's Hall of Fame career speaks for itself, but it is the intangible characteristics he brings that are such a positive for our hockey club," said Rangers coach and general manager Glen Sather. "He is a champion, a leader and a warrior whose only priority is to see the Rangers regain their position among the NHL's top clubs."

Messier's presence is most definitely felt in the Rangers' dressing room. He is still the captain of a team that has missed the playoffs for six seasons despite spending millions on stars. The Rangers had the NHL's highest payroll last year.

Part of the reason Messier is expected to return year after year is that it seems inconceivable he would call it quits before getting back to the playoffs at least one more time.

"There's never a perfect scenario to retire on," Messier said. "I don't think it's a perfect scenario to retire when you've won or it's not a perfect scenario to retire when you haven't made the playoffs. When it's time to retire it's always going to be a disappointment. That's just the way sports is."

Not much has gone right for the Rangers since they reached the Eastern Conference finals in 1997.

Messier, who has 676 goals and 1,168 assists, left as a free agent for Vancouver after New York was eliminated by Philadelphia. He returned in 2000 hoping he and the Rangers would enjoy the kind of success they shared after he arrived the first time from Edmonton in 1991.

But ill-advised player moves, lack of disciplined play, and a litany of injuries has prevented that.

Front-office and coaching changes haven't helped yet, either.

Last season, Sather gave the job behind the bench to Bryan Trottier -- a rookie head coach who made his name with the rival New York Islanders. That experiment lasted only 54 games before Sather fired Trottier and added the coaching responsibilities to his president and GM duties.

So Sather and Messier are joined again. That tandem won five Stanley Cups in Edmonton when Sather was coach and general manager of the Oilers. Sather couldn't find a suitable replacement for himself during the offseason, so he kept the job.

"It's always good when you go into the season knowing somewhat of what a plan is going to be," Rangers forward Bobby Holik said. "That helps a little bit, but there's a lot more things you need to do to be better."

Having a system in place that can be followed and executed is the only chance the Rangers have of returning to the playoffs. But this season is starting just as the last one ended, with major injuries.

Top defenseman Brian Leetch is hurt again, sidelined with the type of ankle injury that forced him to miss nearly half of last season.

He finally recovered from the initial injury, only to get hurt again shortly before training camp when he was hit by a shot while testing new skates.

Pavel Bure, another recent high-priced acquisition, has recurring knee problems that might end his career.

The concussion sustained by goalie Mike Richter last November forced him to retire this summer. Messier, Leetch and Richter were the core of the Rangers for over a decade, but only Messier, the eldest of the group, played this preseason.

"It never really beats you down," he said, referring to the injuries. "What beats you down is when your best players are hurt for the whole year. Those players are hard to replace."

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