Mark John Douglas Messier is known amongst his fans by several nicknames: ‘Mess’ and ‘The Messiah’, reverentially as ‘The Captain’ for his extraordinary leadership qualities, but more often than not they will refer to him as ‘Moose’ for his imposing 6 ft 2 / 205 lb (1.88 m / 93 kg) physique. He is also considered by many to be the most complete player of his generation, a versatile talent that is equal parts power, skill and speed, with an unpredictable style to boot.
Mark Messier was born on January 18, 1961 in Edmonton, Canada, immersed in hockey from the very beginning. A big part of his early love for the sport came from the fact that hockey runs deep in the Messier family: Dad Doug Messier was a minor-league player and Mark’s first coach, often taking his son to watch him practise when the future ‘Moose’ was just four years old. Mark’s brother Paul, is also a talented professional hockey player, having been drafted by the Colorado Rockies 41st overall in the 1978 NHL Amateur Draft and later making his name in the German Bundesliga. Cousins Mick and Jody have also played hockey professionally in the NHL.
When he was eleven years old, Mark was the stick boy for an Alberta junior leagues team, but his budding talent was not to be contained for very long. Mark played hockey throughout his school years in Edmonton, heeding his father’s mentoring and advice. From the St. Francis Xavier High School team, he moved on to the junior leagues, to the Spruce Grove Mets, the same team where he helped as stick boy five years earlier. He soon became the team’s star player. The following season saw him play with the St. Albert Saints, another Alberta junior team, and a quick few games with the Portland Winter Hawks.
Mark’s name was rising quickly: so quickly, in fact, that the almost 200 lb teenager wouldn’t need to go through the usual route of major junior and college hockey. Doug Messier’s connections from his playing days proved instrumental in launching young Mark’s professional career. In his day, he had played with Pat Stapleton, who was now the coach of the Indianapolis Racers, a World Hockey Association (WHA) team. Doug called his former team-mate and managed to get his son a 10-game tryout contract for $30,000. The year was 1978 and Mark was just 17 years old.
Nothing is ever guaranteed in sport, no matter how promising a young athlete might seem, and Messier failed to score a single point with the Racers in the five games he played for them. Nevertheless, he still managed to make a good impression with the pros, and when the Indianapolis franchise went bankrupt in December 1978, he was quickly snatched by WHA rivals, the Cincinnati Stingers, as a free agent. He played 47 games with the club and scored one goal during his stay. Despite what at first glance would seem like an unpromising start, glory days were on the cards for Messier, and it would all start in his hometown of Edmonton.
Messier was drafted in 1979 by the Edmonton Oilers as their second choice, 48th overall in the NHL’s Entry Draft. He started really developing as a player in his new team, rising from rookie to well-respected equal and steadily increasing his scoring output from 12 goals in his first season, to 23 in his second season and then onwards to 50 on his third season with the Oilers, in 1981-82. He was selected to the NHL’s first All-Star team that year.
During his tenure in the Edmonton team, Messier and the Oilers’ star Wayne Gretzky developed a close professional relationship, a fearsome combination of Gretzky’s attack and Messier’s defence. From then on, the names Messier and Gretzky would frequently be linked, on the ice and in the records. But Messier was to be more than just the Great One’s lieutenant, and in 1984, when the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup in five years, he was voted the most valuable player in the playoffs. This was an impressive achievement, considering he was singled out from a team that boasted among its stars, not only Gretzky but also Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr. Messier consistently gave some of his most memorable performances during playoffs.