Wayne Gretzky was the key behind the Edmonton Oilers’ offense that led to four of the five Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters at Rexall Place, but even he might say Mark Messier was the heart and soul of the team that won all those championships.
Messier will be honored by his hometown team when his No. 11 is retired Tuesday night prior to the Oilers’ game against Gretzky’s Phoenix Coyotes.
“I can’t think of a better place to be honored,” Messier told a crowd of fans Monday in Edmonton, where two days of festivities culminate with the retirement ceremonies. “I’m excited to be home.”
In a career that spanned from 1979-2004, Messier finished as the second-leading scorer all-time behind Gretzky with 1,887 points - 694 goals and 1,193 assists - playing for Edmonton, Vancouver and the New York Rangers. He also averaged better than a point per game in the playoffs, scoring 295 in 236 contests.
But it was Messier’s chemistry with the Gretzky that helped put the Oilers on the NHL map after being one of four teams absorbed by the league following the merger with the World Hockey Association.
“We both had a lot of pride and pushed each other in practice, pushed each other in games. If I wasn’t playing well, he’d tell me I had to play better. If he wasn’t playing well, I’d tell Jari (Kurri) to tell him,” Gretzky said jokingly Monday from Calgary before the Coyotes met the Flames.
Messier spent his first 12 seasons with Edmonton - where he was nicknamed “Moose”- twice helping them win back-to-back Stanley Cups (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988). A 15-time All-Star, Messier earned the fifth of six championship rings in 1990 with the Oilers, two years after Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles.
“It’s a tremendous honor not only for (Messier), but for his family. I know his family has always been very proud of him. He’s well deserving of everything he’s going to get,” Gretzky said. “He’s just a wonderful man.”
Messier’s jersey becomes the sixth to be raised by Edmonton. Besides Gretzky’s familiar No. 99, which has been retired leaguewide, the Oilers have retired numbers for Al Hamilton (3), Paul Coffey (7), Kurri (17) and Grant Fuhr (31).
Messier’s No. 11 also was retired last year by the Rangers, the franchise he helped end a 54-year championship drought in 1994 for his final Cup.
Edmonton (30-27-6) returns home after going 2-3-2 on its season-high seven-game road trip. The Oilers scored just seven goals while losing the first four games before posting back-to-back wins over Columbus and Detroit, ending the Red Wings’ 13-game home winning streak.
They wrapped up the road swing Sunday with a 4-1 loss to Minnesota. Fernando Pisani’s goal seven minutes into the third period prevented the Oilers from being shut out for the fifth time this season, but dropped them to 0-11-1 when scoring one goal or less.
“We didn’t get the breaks and we didn’t get the puck in the back of the net when we needed to,” Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish said. “The one thing I don’t want to have happen is get a lot of frustration seep in and get a lot of negative energy and paralyze us further.”
Edmonton is in ninth place in the Western Conference, but nine points behind divisional rivals Minnesota and Calgary for the final two playoff spots.
The Coyotes have lost 16 of 19 this season when scoring two or fewer goals on the road, and will likely miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.
Phoenix has lost two of three games to Edmonton this season overall, and has just two wins in its last nine visits to Rexall Place.