Why did the Rangers put on such a show when Mark Messier returned to Madison Square Garden on Nov. 25? Despite everything, they still consider him one of their own.
It was the former captain’s first game back since he and the Rangers parted ways acrimoniously last summer, and many cynics had anticipated that the Rangers’ organization would look on in stone-faced denial (“Mark who?”) as their erstwhile leader led his new team, the Vancouver Canucks, onto the Garden ice against his old one.
But before the opening face-off, the Rangers surprised everyone, including Mr. Messier, by showing a commemorative video of Mr. Messier’s finest Ranger moments-chief among them, his leading role in bringing the team its first Stanley Cup in 54 years. The fans, so many of whom were turned out in Ranger jerseys bearing Mr. Messier’s name, stood and cheered. Mr. Messier still belonged to them.
Photos of a teary-eyed Mr. Messier made the papers the next day, as did quotes from players and coaches on both teams calling the Rangers a “class organization.” It was a publicity coup for the Rangers, who had been hammered for letting Mr. Messier get away. After the game, some reporters grumbled that the Garden had orchestrated the event to garner good will. But the sportswriters didn’t let their cynicism seep into their stories because ultimately they agreed with the Rangers. Mr. Messier belonged to them, too.
The fans, the press and the Garden clearly felt they still owned a piece of Mr. Messier. Their florid display of emotion disguised the fact that deep down they felt-or wished-this whole Vancouver episode would be a temporary thing, and that eventually, Mr. Messier would come home to New York, just as Joe Namath did, returning from Los Angeles to do ads for home electronics. His six years with the Rangers had made him a New Yorker, and once you’re a New Yorker, honorary or otherwise, New York won’t let you go. During Mr. Messier’s recent visit to the Garden, Neil Smith, the Rangers’ general manager, talked openly of retiring his number some day, as though Mr. Messier’s Manhattan interlude represented the pith, if not the pinnacle, of his career.
New York has a way of co-opting its finest imports, whether they be athletes, editors, widows or rock stars, even when they have done their defining work elsewhere. We gladly take credit for Reggie Jackson, Jacqueline Onassis, Harold Evans and John Lennon, as if, like the proverbial hayseed who comes to New York and by dint of work and talent finds fame and fortune, they had achieved nothing before coming here.
Mr. Messier’s is a case in point. There’s no question he achieved a great deal in New York. He led the team to a Stanley Cup, he was the league’s most valuable player, and he made hockey hot in a basketball town. And that’s all fine and praiseworthy. The fact remains, however, that Mr. Messier did his best work in his native town of Edmonton, Alberta. As a member of the Edmonton Oilers, he won five Stanley Cups. Five of his six most productive seasons were spent there. The jaw, the glare, the elbows-he put them all to good use in Edmonton, well before he brought them to Broadway in the fall of 1991. His persona was honed in Edmonton, too. It was there that he became the single-minded warrior who wills teams to win. He matured, hardened, succeeded, then came to New York.
Jacqueline Onassis came here from Newport, R.I., Hyannis Port, Mass., and Washington, D.C. She got to be pretty famous for being the graceful wife, then the graceful widow, of a young President. As a free agent, she signed with Aristotle Onassis of Greece. For this stage of her career, her numbers weren’t as good, but she continued to wow the folks in the stands. Then she came to New York, where she became the patron saint of Central Park and, in death, the essence of at least one rarefied version of Manhattan.
Harold Evans came from London. He made it big as a newspaper editor, but thanks to a fancy publishing job in New York, he became “a New York persona,” as The New York Times dubbed him when he went to work for Mortimer Zuckerman (a Canadian New York persona from Boston). Bear in mind that Mr. Evans was considered one of the finest journalists of his generation in Britain. He broke the Kim Philby spy story years ago. But here in New York, he hosted breakfasts at Barneys and thus became a New York institution-as if all the honors that came before never happened, or didn’t count.
Reggie Jackson came here from Oakland. He won three World Series titles there, and he made a name for himself as a brash clutch slugger with a roundhouse swing and a gift for self-promotion. Then he set up shop in New York, helped the Yankees win two championships and turned in one of the signature performances in World Series history: three pitches, three home runs. And we named a chocolate bar after him. He became a Yankee and a New Yorker, just like the Babe and the Mick and Yogi. And then he left after a few brilliant years and finished his career, with some glory, in California. But he had been utterly co-opted; when he went into baseball’s Hall of Fame, he went in as a Yankee.
Mr. Messier may have little else in common with Jackie Onassis et al., besides the fact that for a few years he had an apartment in Manhattan, but his experience is remarkably similar to Mr. Jackson’s. During the Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup run, Mr. Messier publicly guaranteed a victory in Game 6 of the team’s semifinal series against the New Jersey Devils, then went out and made good on it by scoring three goals in the final period. It was his Reggie Bar moment, and it earned Mr. Messier the worship of a city that really doesn’t care that much about hockey. It earned the Rangers a chance to make the Messier legacy their own.
Oakland, Edmonton, Whatever
Were these defining acts? A New Yorker no doubt would reply: Yes! But what of Mr. Jackson’s glory years in Oakland, and Mr. Messier’s in Edmonton? What of Harold Evans’ years as a crusading editor at The Times of London? In New York, the media center, the arrogance capital, past accomplishments in other places are melted down and then recast and reshaped into a New York story.
Even when they go away, as Mr. Messier has, as Mr. Jackson did, they can continue to be co-opted. And so the video tribute to Mr. Messier may have been designed to prepare the way for Mr. Messier’s eventual return as an elder statesman in Ranger blue, a replacement for the Rangers’ current star emeritus, Rod Gilbert.
Mr. Gilbert was a lifelong Ranger. He played nearly 18 seasons for the team, and his number has been retired. And he became the team’s mascot retiree, its most available dignitary, trotted out on special occasions-player milestones, charity banquets-to lend a little history to the proceedings and sustain an illusion of continuity in an era in which teams are stocked with wandering mercenaries and are owned by a succession of indeterminate corporate entities.
Mr. Gilbert was perfect for the job. He lived in New York, looked sharp in a suit and had a charming Québécois accent. He became the Rangers’ equivalent of Joe DiMaggio, a dignified symbol of past glory, and a spokesman for a local bank.
Then came Mark Messier. He won over the fans, the press and the players. He settled in Manhattan, caroused in its bars, and dated Madonna and Frederique van der Wal, the Dutch-born lingerie model. He became the odds-on favorite to succeed Mr. Gilbert as Mister Ranger, and figured to settle into a comfortable retirement in a few years-Mr. Messier is nearing the end of his playing days-as a New York persona.
But the Rangers seemingly foiled that plan when they failed to sign Mr. Messier to a new contract over the summer. Suddenly, Mister Ranger was playing in Vancouver.
Perhaps Garden management realized, belatedly, the importance of the Star Emeritus factor-and the co-opting power of New York. Perhaps that’s why the Rangers gave Mr. Messier a public, tear-jerking salute on Nov. 25. Who, after all, will play the role of glamorous retiree in the next century? Probably not current Ranger Wayne Gretzky. He may be the greatest hockey player in the history of the planet, but not even New York at its most arrogant could claim Mr. Gretzky as a New York star. Sure, he lives on the Upper East Side and is married to an actress, but he arrived too late to be part of the Stanley Cup glory in 1994.
Four days after Mr. Messier’s Garden return, the Rangers got a little help in their fledgling campaign to make him an honorary Blueshirt for life. When the roster for the 1998 Canadian Olympic hockey team was announced on Nov. 29, Mr. Messier’s name was conspicuously absent. He had been unexpectedly rejected by his home and native land. Up north, this was the stuff of scandal. But in New York, it had the makings of opportunity. As the fans and the Rangers had made clear earlier in the week, he’s ours, whether he likes it or not.
He seemed to like it when he was here. Now, snubbed by Canada, he might like it even more.