Mark Messier No. 1 in the hearts of Rangers fans but only 93rd on our list


There are two sides to the Mark Messier debate: Most Canucks fans hate him but former managers and teammates still sing his praises.

There are two sides to the Mark Messier debate: Most Canucks fans hate him but former managers and teammates still sing his praises.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG

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He’s worshipped in New York and Edmonton, and lionized in every other NHL city.

Except, of course, Vancouver.

Whenever the topic of Mark Messier’s three-year stint in Vancouver comes up, in many boroughs of Canucks Nation the reaction is scorn and vitriol.

He didn’t break a sweat to earn the then-massive $6 million a season he was being paid. He ran coach Tom Renney and then Trevor Linden out of town. He was indifferent to the team’s descent into the NHL’s nether regions, as it missed the playoffs all three years he was here.

That is just the short list of the charges, and they’ve become a fashionable mantra for Canucks fans, regardless of their depth of knowledge.

It’s reflected in the voting for The Province’s 101 Greatest Canucks project, where Messier finished 93rd on the list.

One of the greatest players in NHL history and winner of six Stanley Cups finished two spots behind Donald Brashear — who was little more than a fighter — and, ironically, one ahead of Wayne Maki, whose jersey number played into the minefield of bad optics that Messier shuffled through while a Canuck.

Messier’s numbers weren’t great in Vancouver, but they weren’t bad, either. How did he finish so low in the rankings, in the company he did? Our 14 panelists in the project were encouraged to interpret “greatest” using only the player’s time with the Canucks as the main criterion and include — or not — such subjective off-ice factors as work in the community or impact on the franchise. So read into it that six of our voters evidently saw Messier’s time in Vancouver as so negative that they didn’t even have him on their list.

Yes, Messier wore his famous No. 11 when it hadn’t been issued to a Canuck since the last owner, Maki, had died of brain cancer and the club hadn’t bothered to contact Maki’s family. Yes, he accepted the ‘C’ from franchise icon Linden. And, yes, he arrived brimming with hubris and entitlement — though so would most other sports superstars.

Just for good measure, he collected another $6 million in deferred money from the Canucks just two years ago to keep the enmity pot boiling.

Messier was asked to be interviewed for this story, but his representatives said his schedule was too full.

Victoria’s Steve May, a lifelong Canucks fan and a member of the 101 Greatest Canucks panel, says the perception of Messier as a controversial figure in one of the franchise’s darkest eras persists 15 years later.

“He’s become the anti-Christ of the Canucks,” says May, who doesn’t assign any blame to Messier for the disaster of Year 1, but does the other two.

“He not only killed them in 1994, he came back and stomped on the grave from 1997 to 2000. It’s the perception. It’s a visceral reaction.”

In speaking with various people who were with the Canucks for all or part of Messier’s three years in Vancouver, the common sentiment is that the slam-dunk Hall of Famer was caught in a perfect storm: He was a star player whose skills were eroding, faced with unachievably high expectations on a team that was in inevitable decline.

And certainly owner John McCaw’s firing of GM Pat Quinn with no credible replacement in sight only served to accelerate the free fall that first season.

Former Canucks GM Brian Burke disputes any notion that Messier wasn’t completely engaged in making a difference for the team. Burke, who was GM for Messier’s final two seasons in Vancouver, says he offered to move Messier to another team both years at the NHL trade deadline, but the Canucks captain declined each time. The second time, Burke made the offer after he’d told Messier he wouldn’t be bringing him back.

“He said he came here to do a job,” says Burke, now the president of the Calgary Flames.

“I know Mess. He always said (the criticism) never bothered him, but I think he cares more than he lets on. It was a privilege to have him as a player. I have a lot of respect for Mark Messier and Canucks fans should too.”

Dave Babych, who was one of the conga line of players traded by coach and de facto GM Mike Keenan during Messier’s first season, says Messier’s perceived closeness to Keenan plays a big role in the bad sentiment.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” says Babych. “But I think if Mike Keenan wasn’t here at the same time it would be totally different. I’m sure there were things (Messier) expected and he got, but the biggest cloud over his head is he comes in and Keenan wants to move certain guys — the figureheads on the team, players popular with the fans.”

Babych acknowledges that the team had become stale and changes needed to be made.

“I think some of the moves were the right moves,” he says. “It was time.

“The toughest part was when Pat (Quinn) left. He was always the calming influence. When that happened, the stability really went sideways. He may have made the same moves, I don’t know, but with those changes it was shoved down the players’ throats.”

Tom Renney, who was fired 19 games into Messier’s first season and replaced by Keenan, doesn’t buy the Messier-as-Machiavelli theory.

“No, quite honestly, I worked with Mark subsequently in New York and he was outstanding,” says Renney, now the CEO of Hockey Canada. “Even your leadership, including Trevor at that time, would be canvassed by whoever would be in charge at that moment. Being good leaders, people like those two, would have to man up and suggest what they thought was required.

“Mark would have identified what he thought had to get done there and in most of his career that’s translated into big wins for lots of people.”

Markus Naslund, who took over the team’s captaincy after Messier left following the 1999-2000 season, says Messier’s influence on him when he was struggling to stay in the NHL was a turning point in his career. Naslund was on the verge of being traded early in Messier’s second year, but injuries at forward gave him a chance to play on the top line. The result was a breakout 36-goal season.

“More than anything he showed faith in me and boosted my confidence,” says Naslund. “He made me feel good about my game and at that point that was pretty crucial. My confidence wasn’t that high, trying to crack the lineup. He thought we had some chemistry and he wanted to keep me on the line.”

Naslund says Messier’s influence was also felt by other younger players as the rebuild under Burke was underway.

“The young guys came in and we started to mature as a group and I think Mark had a lot to do with that,” he says. “I think he taught us all a lot of helpful things about how to be a leader and play for one another.”

There’s no question that Messier will continue to be a controversial figure in Canucks history. But maybe fans should consider that his biggest crime was being 36 when he arrived in Vancouver, not 26.

There are two sides to the Mark Messier debate: Most Canucks fans hate him but former managers and teammates still sing his praises.

There are two sides to the Mark Messier debate: Most Canucks fans hate him but former managers and teammates still sing his praises.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG

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