When Mark Messier finally decided to write a book, he did not want it to be your typical autobiography. After reading books by NBA Hall of Fame coaches Phil Jackson and Pat Riley about the psychology of team sports and leadership, he wanted to go in that direction when it came to talking about his hockey career.
“[I] started talking to [co-author Jimmy Roberts] about all the notes I had collected over the year from speeches I’d given on leadership,” Messier told NBC Sports recently. “Asked him if he’d be interested in writing a book more on team leadership, some psychology through my life story.”
Television also wasn’t on Messier’s mind until former Rangers executive John Davidson gave him a call to gauge his interest. After putting him in tough with agent Sandy Montag, Messier eventually signed on to be a commentator for ESPN’s NHL coverage.
“The timing was right,” Messier said.
Messier’s book, “No One Wins Alone,” comes out this week and details his childhood with a hockey-playing father through his NHL career, which ended with six Stanley Cup titles.
We spoke to Messier about each his three NHL stops, the boost of winning in New York, how he determines a winner for the Mark Messier Leadership Award, and more.
Q. Once those teams in Edmonton were at full power with the numerous Hall of Famers, what was the pressure like there? With the amount of talent you had people just assumed games were easy to win, but you had to win those games.
MARK MESSIER: “Winning when you’re expected to win is one of the hardest things in sports. Any team with Wayne Gretzky on it back then would probably be considered a team that should win. But you’re right, it was never easy. As good of a team that we were and as great as the records during the regular season we had it was hard to win. It was hard to beat teams in seven-game series. It was hard to play 82 games when people were using us as a benchmark for many years. Those were tough years, and then once we broke through and beat the Islanders in ’84 and then we’re all in the peaks of our careers, the expectations to do it again and again and again, it was demanding and challenging, but I think it pushed us in a way that made us better in the end. It made us tougher, more resilient.”
Q. Even after the five Stanley Cups in Edmonton how much do you think winning in New York, breaking the curse of “1940,” did for furthering your profile in hockey?
MESSIER: “That Cup in ’94 represented so many different things. I think it stretched outside the boundaries of hockey. It became an interesting story on many different levels. To do it in New York with the media and the amount of media, really brought that story to light. We were recognized around the country in only a way New York can do it.”
[Excerpt: Mark Messier, September 11, and the FDNY helmet]
Q. The Rangers missed the playoffs before winning that Cup in 1994. How much were the players feeling the pressure to win in New York?
MESSIER: “When I first got to New York the team would have rather not talked about expectations and winning the Stanley Cup. It was easier not to talk about it and get fans disappointed and have to deal with losing and then the aftermath of losing. I came from a culture and an organization that was completely opposite. I came from an organization where our first Christmas party in 1979-80 we all got beautiful shearling jackets and engraved in it was ‘Stanley Cup champions 198_.’ So from the first time I was ever playing in the NHL the expectations were ‘I’m here to win a Stanley Cup.’ That had to change in New York, and of course with that brings added pressure and expectations and decisions that have to be made in order to get you there.
“I was happy to see that culture change [happen] and there was a buy-in from ownership and management. Obviously it was one of the reasons why we were able to eventually win in New York.”
Q. If you could have a do-over with the Canucks, how would you approach it going in and what would you do differently?
MESSIER: “When I went to Vancouver the expectation was to win a Stanley Cup and the reality was the team had changed a lot since their Stanley Cup run in 1994. I think there was only two or three players left from that team. I tried to bridge the divide between players on the team, but if I had to do it again I would have not have accepted the captaincy and tried to do it in a different way. I think that’s probably the thing I’d change the most.”
Q. Despite all of your accomplishments is there a loss that still does not sit well with you all these years later?
MESSIER: “Any time I lost it didn’t sit well. I loved to win. I knew winning was hard. Looking back, the losses are unfortunately the ones that shape you the most of the time. I hate to admit that because I’d rather win and get shaped than lose and get shaped. Everything happens for a reason.
“Obviously the loss in ’86 [Game 7 of Smythe Division Final to Calgary] was tough for many reasons and not for the way we lost the game [Steve Smith own goal]. But at that time we’d won two in a row, we were on our way to winning a third and losing that year was a tough loss. But we rebounded the next year [won back-to-back].”
Q. What aspects of the game from your era can be found in today’s game?
MESSIER: “That’s a good question. One of the things that was great coming out of [the rule changes for 2005-06] was that we really tried to bring the speed back into the game with the obstruction away from the puck. It really opened up the game to a lot more foot races, a lot more speed in the game instead of the hooking and holding and clutching and grabbing. It really put an exciting element back into the game, which is the speed of hockey. The scoring’s never going to be like it was in the ‘80s when we scored 400-some goals a year, the goalies are just too good and the technique has changed where it’s just incredible. The biggest advancement probably in our game in the last 100 years is the goaltending position.
“But there’s lots of chances, there’s lots of shots, there’s lots of foot races, there’s lots of speed, and it’s opened up the game in a way that a lot of different types of players can play in the game now, which I think is really great for the game.”
Q. You said in an interview in May that you were ready to help the Rangers in any way as they were going through changes. Did they reach out to you and do you still have a desire to work in an organization in some capacity.
MESSIER: “The Rangers didn’t feel, obviously, that I could help, which is fine. But the answer is like anything else you need to be supported, whether you’re a player or you’re a manager or any part of the organization with somebody that believes you can help. If that was the case and somebody thought that I could help their team or their organization that I would be willing to listen to that.”
Q. Could you run me through the process of how you determine the winner of the Mark Messier Leadership Award? Is it just you, do you reach out to people in the game to get their thoughts?
MESSIER: “I talk to many different people in the game from media to team personnel to fans to managers, coaches, owners. I didn’t want it to be a political process in any way. I want it to be completely free of anything that might influence the decisions. That might sound counterintuitive because I’m the only one doing it, but I’m looking to shine a light on players that are doing great things on and off the ice. All too often we caught up to the negative stories about what’s happening instead of celebrating the greatness in our game on and off the ice.
“The real problem that I have is that there’s so many incredible stories, incredible players that are doing great things. Picking one winner is the hardest part, but I think we’ve done a good job picking our players and winners in past years. They’ve reflected what is great within our game.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.