Saturday, 27 February 2010

TBC: Messier

When the debate about great leaders in sports comes about, Mark Messier's name is almost always given. His glare, as seen on the cover to the left, is legendary, and the stories of his leadership make him sound more like a Greek god than a mortal hockey player. However, for all that is known of his on-ice exploits, there is so much more to Mark Messier's legend. The intensively private man's life is covered in-depth by Jeff Z. Klein in Messier, published by Triumph Books. This biography opens up the world of hockey's greatest leader, and the only man to captain two different teams to a Stanley Cup Championship. I was blown away about all the stuff that hasn't been reported in terms of how generous with his time that Messier is when it comes to the various charities and groups with which he was involved over his career. Again, there's so much more to Messier in this book that is rarely ever covered by the media.

Jeff Z. Klein is a self-confessed, life-long Buffalo Sabres fan, but he has penned a number of excellent hockey works such as Mario Lemieux, The Death of Hockey, and The Coolest Guys on Ice. June 14, 1994 marked a major moment in his life when he was permitted to drink from the Stanley Cup after the New York Rangers had won the NHL Championship. Klein's work can be read on his New York Times blog, Slap Shot Blog, and in the New York Times newspaper.

Klein starts the story of Messier at the very beginning when Mark Douglas Messier was born in Edmonton, Alberta on January 18, 1961.

Klein explores the hockey family that the Messiers were: Mark's father, Doug Messier, was a journeyman defenceman. Doug Messier has been drafted by the NHL's Detroit Red Wings, but the senior Messier turned down an invitation to the team's training camp in order for him to pursue education and business pursuits. Mark grew up in Portland, Oregon after the Messier family settled there, with Doug having been bought by the Portland Buckeroos of the WHL. Doug would wear #11 for Portland, a number that would be associated with another Messier shortly.

The Messiers had a farm out near Beaverton, and they owned a log cabin up on Mount Hood. It was in the Oregon setting that Mark took up hockey, whether it be on ice, on a street, or simply shooting a ball or puck against a wall. Messier began his hockey career as a youngster in Portland, Oregon in the Portland Amateur Hockey Association. However, in 1968-69, Doug Messier retired from hockey, and the family moved back home to Edmonton.

Mark Messier's brother, Paul Messier, accepted a hockey scholarship to the University of Denver when Mark was fourteen. Like his father did, Paul was encouraged to continue his education first and foremost over hockey. Mark, however, was allowed to drop out of Grade 12 in order to pursue his hockey dream.

After playing extremely well in 1977-78 for the Tier II St. Albert Saints, it was apparent that his leadership skills had been developing. Doug Messier, coaching the Saints, would address the team before game, but he would be told that "#11 had already done it". Mark was becoming a valuable player to several teams at 16 years of age.

At the end of the '77-78 season, he joined the Portland Winter Hawks in the WHL Playoffs, but the team didn't fare so well. The taste of big-time hockey wasn't lost on Messier, though, and he tried out for the Canadian Olympic team in 1978 before getting his big break. With Wayne Gretzky on his way from Indianapolis to Edmonton, the WHA's Racers looked for someone to step into a scoring role, and invited 17 year-old, Tier II junior player Mark Messier in a tryout situation in a game against the Winnipeg Jets.

Mark's foray into the WHA at first was unproductive in terms of his stats, but he caught the attention of Edmonton head coach Glen Sather. With the Indianapolis Racers selling off most of their talent in 1978-79, the team struggled. It eventually folded, and the five games that Messier played in were all losses. However, shortly before Christmas, Mark Messier became a professional hockey player when he signed with the Cincinnati Stingers of the WHA at the tender age of 17.

That seems like a lot of information, right? Klein goes over all of that information in the first chapter! This book is filled with a number of amazing tidbits of history, including how Mark Messier became an Edmonton Oiler through the WHA dispersal draft, his ventures into international hockey, how he and Gretzky became life-long best friends through their different personalities and styles of play, Mark's moves through professional hockey, and he went from being a slightly uncoordinated Tier II junior player to one of the most respected men in the game of hockey ever.

One of the more interesting chapters is where Klein describes Mark's efforts during the September 11, 2001 tragedy in New York City, and all that Messier did for various groups. It's in this chapter that we see how loved Mark is by the city of New York, and how much he loves New York City. This was, by far, my favorite chapter of the book, and it's certainly worth the wait.

While I found that Klein was almost apologetic in spots for Messier's behaviours, Klein really does an excellent job at peeling away the layers of Mark Messier as a person, finding the personal level that one can relate with in terms of Mark's career and life. While Messier may not win any literary awards, it is one of the better biographies I have read about an athlete who fiercely guards his privacy, and Klein does a superb job at making the larger-than-life athlete seem like a real person with faults and flaws. Because of this, Messier deserves Teebz's Book Club Seal of Approval. For 336 pages of Mark Messier, there are some amazing facts about the man in this work.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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