A capacity crowd of about 750 people, many in New York Rangers team apparel, enthusiastically greeted hockey legend Mark Messier recently at Sacred Heart University’s Edgerton Center.
His appearance, billed as “An Evening with Mark Messier,” was part of the school’s 2017-2018 Student Affairs Lecture Series. It was moderated by Randy Brochu ’15 MACOMM, coordinator of SHU’s academic services and student development and play-by-play broadcaster for Pioneer athletics.
Brochu introduced Messier, noting that beyond his stellar career, it is Messier’s “heart, grit and accountability that make him one of the greatest players.” For the record, Messier’s career spanned 1978-2004, with a start in the World Hockey Association and play with the Edmonton Oilers (1979-1991), New York Rangers (1991-1997, 2000-2004) and Vancouver Canucks (1997-2000), in center and captain roles. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007 and became special assistant to the president and general manager of the Rangers. Considered one of the greatest National Hockey League players of all time, he is second in all-time career lists for playoff points (295) and regular-season games played (1,756) and third for regular-season points (1,887). He is also a six-time Stanley Cup champion and 15-time NHL All-Star.
Nicknamed “The Messiah” and “The Moose,” Messier spoke about what it takes to be a great leader. Though he admitted he didn’t think about it much as a player, he reflected, “You learn from different experiences, take good things and bad things. To be successful, you need full participation from the team, get them engaged and accountable, and develop relationships deeper than game time and practice.” He added that the “most important thing is to build trust” and to “get people thinking along the same lines for one goal, inspiring them to do that because when you win, the stage is big enough for everyone, and everyone will be acknowledged.”
With regard to the relationship between the coach and the team captain, he said they need to be in “lock-step,” wherein the captain relays the coach’s message to the team and relays the team’s message to the coach. “Where coaches get in trouble is when they try to take the power,” he cautioned.
Reflecting on his career, Messier said he was in the “right place at the right time joining the Oilers” and was lucky to have fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky join the team. Then, he said, at 31 he needed a change, so he came to New York and, three years later, helped the Rangers win the Stanley Cup. That year, when the Rangers were down 3-2 to the New Jersey Devils in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, Messier made the now-famous “guarantee,” telling the press New York would win Game 6. “We had a great year, had beat the Devils six times during the year and had to find a way to play better. I wanted the team to know I felt we could win,” said Messier. They did win the game, and the series, and defeated the Canucks to win the Cup, ending a 54-year New York hockey championship drought.
“I was fighting against an incredible amount of history, a roller coaster. A lot of responsibility was thrown my way,” Messier said of that time. And, about being a Ranger then, he said, “The river runs deep. It wasn’t just about the Stanley Cup, but generations of families.”
Messier advised that focus is a key to success in sports. “There are so many distractions athletes can get into. You have to be in harmony with yourself,” he shared. He added that failure is a good teacher—“it gives you clarity”—and that “the best players were the hardest-working players.” He credited experience, too, noting that even if you don’t win a championship the time is not wasted.
Perhaps as important with respect to an athlete’s approach to the game is having fun, Messier said. “There’s so much pressure. You’ve got to love the game and the journey. I found the joy in that and the camaraderie. You have to balance it. Keep it in perspective. You have to turn the music on, keep the music on. After you’ve lost, you’ve got to reset and go again. Take the time as a team to do stuff,” he advised.
Asked for his thoughts on the game’s current state, Messier was mostly positive, noting that “speed and artistry” is back, and there’s a concentration on talent, high offense and entertainment. “It’s incredible how far the game has evolved since I retired in 2004. Every team seems to have one or two great young players,” he observed.
Not ruling out a general manager’s position in the near future (“hopefully with the Rangers” said Messier), the hockey great is currently focused on a project in the Bronx, converting the century-old Kingsbridge Armory at 125th Street into the country’s largest indoor ice-skating facility. The $350-million effort was initiated five years ago, and the state has helped get the first phase done. Messier anticipates it will be completed in 2020-2021. “Hopefully we can inspire a lot more boys and girls to skate,” he said about the venue.
Messier’s visit fell on the eve of his 57th birthday, which the audience acknowledged by singing “Happy Birthday” to him at the conclusion of the 90-minute talk.