Q&A: Mark Messier on a Vancouver do-over, pressure to win with Oilers, Rangers

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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.

Enjoy.

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.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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    Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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    The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

    Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

    John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

    TORTS REFORM

    Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

    “I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

    Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

    BIG MO

    The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

    The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

    “He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

    PLAYOFF ROTATION

    Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

    Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

    “I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

    The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

    “He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

    The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

    “This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

    LAMBERT ISLAND

    Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

    Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

    “Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

    MORE NEW VOICES

    The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

    Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

    The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

    Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

    “He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

    Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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    Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

    The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

    Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

    “We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

    Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

    “I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

    Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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    OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

    The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

    Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

    The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

    Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.

    Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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    CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

    The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

    The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

    The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.