Winnipeg will experience a healthy increase in leadership -- at least for one day next month.
Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier, known as a leader of leaders, is the guest speaker at the Rady JCC Y Sports Dinner at the Convention Centre on June 19. (More than 800 tickets are sold; some general and host tickets are still available by calling 477-7513.)
Messier, currently the special assistant to the president, New York Rangers, played 25 NHL seasons that included six Stanley Cup wins and 109 playoff goals.
Previewing his appearance in the Manitoba capital, Free Press hockey writer Tim Campbell engaged Messier in a phone conversation earlier this week from Washington, D.C.
FP: Lots of discussion about the playoffs this spring. What's impressed you or surprised you this year?
MESSIER: Every year we're always amazed at the skill level and the commitment and dedication the players show come playoff time after a gruelling 82-game schedule. It's amazing that they still have that reserve to play as hard as they do game in and game out. The competition and intensity is always something that makes playoff hockey the most fun to watch. We're seeing all those things again this year, from every team. It's a great time of year to be a hockey player and a hockey fan.
FP: What can you share about your thoughts during those three overtimes in Washington on Wednesday night or on Ryan McDonagh's 60 shifts in the game?
MESSIER: Everybody keeps talking on how fast the game has gotten. I'm not sure if the game is that much faster. Mike Gartner still holds the record for fastest time around the rink (at the all-star game skills competition). But I think what's happened with the game is that players are better conditioned to sustain a shift at a higher pace for longer, so the game appears faster. The rules, like taking out the red-line, and the conditioning of the players is amazing. And a guy like McDonagh, for him to get hit like he did and continue to play at such a high level, not missing a shift, you've just to got tip your hat to the players and the commitment they put into their conditioning.
FP: You talked about playoff intensity. There has been some violence, hitting late, cheap shots and suspensions. Any thoughts on that? Has the level of it surprised you?
MESSIER: No, I don't think you're ever surprised. When you do see that kind of action is normally when games are out of hand or scores are lopsided and players start taking liberties. Again, it happened 70 years ago, 50 years ago, 30 years ago and it's still happening and it's always going to happen. The guys that take it too far and go over the line have to pay the consequences. Keeping your composure and keeping your wits about you when the pressure's on, that becomes a big part of winning and losing and guys who go over the line will be reprimanded and they were.
FP: You have taken great interest in hockey concussion issues, in particular with your Messier Project. How's that progressing and what kind of feedback do you get?
MESSIER: It's been an interesting journey. It was a way, when I was approached, to help (Cascade Sports) take their technology and put it into a hockey helmet that would be recognized and used by players of all ages. We've come out with the second edition of the M11. The more I thought about it a few years ago, the more I realized it was a great opportunity to give back something to the game to help protect our players the best I could. I believe in the technology. I spent nine months looking into it, to see that it actually did what they said it did. From there, you just start trying to make inroads. We play a very traditional sport and players are very steadfast in their beliefs in what they've worn and anything new is often met with resistance. It's been three years now and we've made incredible inroads. We have the safest helmet on the market, and as we continue, word is spreading.
FP: Do you think the NHL is doing enough to combat concussions and/or head shots?
MESSIER: We play a game where there is body contact and incredible speed in a confined area. We're never going to eliminate injuries. Do I think the NHL's doing enough? I do. There's not a day that goes by they're not trying to make our game more enjoyable for the fans, more exciting and safer. But it's no easy fix. There are so many components that go into looking at injuries and why they're happening. One concussion is too many but as we move forward, we want to try to eliminate the needless head shots that take place. The incidental contact, there's not a lot we can do about that other than protecting ourselves with better technology in our equipment.
FP: You're maybe best known for your "guarantee" of victory in the 1994 playoffs against New Jersey. There seem to be a lot of copycats these days. What do you think about when you hear such things?
MESSIER: (Laughs) It's hard for me to judge anybody. I'm not there. I don't have an understanding of what they're trying to accomplish. For me, I was trying to instill the confidence in our team that we'd showed all year. You do that different ways. I think what happens often times is that you're in front of a big scrum and the reporters are asking you about the next game where you have to win and you can get stuck. 'Are we going to win? Well, yeah, we're going to win.' It becomes a guarantee, this that and the other thing. It's sometimes tough on players to choose their words correctly so they don't put undue pressure on themselves. For me, it was just something we believed we could do. I knew how close we were to winning the Cup and we needed to get over a tough hurdle.
FP: The NHL's return to Winnipeg has been pretty popular. Do you recall your initial thoughts on it last May?
MESSIER: About a year earlier than that, I had the good fortune to attend a birthday gathering at David Thomson's sister's house and he happened to be there. We had an incredible talk about hockey and the future of hockey. When I heard that he was part of the initiative to bring hockey back to Winnipeg, I was very happy because I was so impressed with his love for Winnipeg and his philanthropic endeavours. I knew that when and if a franchise was awarded, they were going to be in good hands, that it would be a first-class organization, which it obviously has been. Winnipeg was always a favourite of mine. One reason is that it was the place of my first game as a professional. I always have fond memories of that in the WHA, and of course playing against the old Winnipeg Jets teams, some of those fierce battles against the Jets who were trying to get out of the old Smythe Division. It brings back a lot of good memories.
FP: Having met Mr. Thomson, what were your impressions?
MESSIER: A very intelligent man. Very articulate. Loves hockey. Loves what hockey represents in Canada and the stories behind it, the athletes behind it. Winnipeg is so fortunate to have a guy like him behind the team there now, a guy who's doing it for all the right reasons and a guy who has the wherewithal to make it work for the people there. What a tremendous situation. I was very impressed meeting him and I look forward to another conversation with him in the future.
FP: When you were involved with the team at the world championships two years ago, Evander Kane of the Jets was on your team. Thoughts, impressions on his progress and on players like him who encounter high expectations?
MESSIER: He's going through what every players does. You come into the league and you're just trying to make a team. Once you do that, you're trying to establish yourself. Once you establish yourself as a regular player in the league, you're trying to climb the ladder to become an elite player. That's the cycle for him. I like Evander a lot. We took him on Team Canada because of his skill set and he's a very competitive kid. One of the toughest things to do in our game is to become a scorer, and a consistent scorer. I think that he's had some success, hit that 30-goal plateau this year, which is incredible. I look at (him) as a driver, with tremendous speed and he needs a centreman to get him the puck in the right situations. As his career unfolds, he'll have more experience to figure out where those holes are on the ice and have more finesse in that area of his game. He's shown he's on that road in the last three years.