In the storied mythos of the Vancouver Canucks, Mark Messier is undoubtedly the team's greatest villain. No coach, no general manager, nor any other player remains as reviled as the notorious Messier. If one were to consult any lifelong Canucks supporter for their opinion of their team's captain from 1997 to 2000, the responses would be unanimous: he epitomizes the injustices that have maligned the team throughout their fifty-year history.
From the agony of being pummeled regularly by the 1980s Edmonton Oilers to the torment of being the victims of Messier's finest achievement in 1994 and reliving that Game 7 defeat each time his accomplishment is revisited, Canucks fans had already endured suffering at his hands for nearly two decades before he swapped his New York Rangers crest to don the orca. Few can forget his six-game suspension after clubbing Thomas Gradin on the head with his stick in 1984, or his attempt to injure Trevor Linden as the latter was crawling to the bench from another collision in the final moments of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 1994. Messier had been the bane of the Canucks for too long.
Hence, a sense of enthusiasm permeated the atmosphere upon his arrival in Vancouver in July 1997. The Canucks had long sought to acquire an elite centerman to play alongside Pavel Bure. At that time, Mark Messier had just completed a 36-goal, 80-point season in New York. His latest campaign was a resounding personal success, and subsequently he became one of the most coveted free agents of the off-season.
He was always known for his gritty style. He was a talented playmaker, and he also possessed an excellent wrist shot. He was intelligent with the puck and reliable defensively. However, he punished opponents with vicious elbows, body checks and a malicious, physical approach. He was the ideal two-way forward.
In Vancouver, his physicality was absent. From the very beginning, commentators noticed a complete lack of intensity from the player frequently regarded as fierce and passionate. He was passive and lethargic. His words were hypocritical. His conduct destroyed his reputation in Vancouver.
In Episode II of The Lost Shifts, we examine Messier's play in one of his earliest performances with the Canucks: a home game against the Detroit Red Wings on October 26, 1997. It became clear within only a month that this acquisition was a blunder of catastrophic proportions.
Our format today deviates from that of our Pavel Bure episode (Episode I). In order to illustrate Messier's apathetic conduct in the most effective and concise fashion, today's presentation features every piece of footage from the match in which he appears on-screen as well as a few extended shifts where his absence from the frame should be considered troublesome.
Interview audio from Dan Russell's CKNW 980 show Sportstalk, as well as the insights of numerous commentators can be heard throughout the video. Episode II concludes with a five-minute montage feature.
Numerous suitors, including the Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals, and the Rangers themselves, offered lucrative contracts to hockey's most glorified captain in the summer of 1997. The Edmonton Oilers also extended their interest. The popular narrative about Messier — stories of leadership, grit, intensity, honor and integrity — excited audiences who believed that he would fortify their team's offensive arsenal, intimidate their opponents and inspire his teammates. His decision to sign with the Canucks was championed as an unprecedented acquisition, with most believing that he would elevate the young Vancouver troupe only four years removed from their unforgettable Stanley Cup Finals experience.
The magnitude of the Canucks' achievement in 1994 can not be understated. Their payroll at the time was nearly half that of the powerhouse New York Rangers, whose roster consisted partially of former dynasty-era Edmonton Oilers players. The Canucks' feat as underdogs was a near-miracle. Their former nemesis would now be their ally. Times seemed bright.
Canucks general manager Pat Quinn was thrilled: "I think Mark's the best free agent to come along since there's been free agency" (Terry Bell and Jim Jamieson, The Province, 29 July 1997).
The team's ownership group, Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment, likewise viewed this as a "defining day." It was, in the words of Tod Leiweke, Orca Bay vice president of business, "A chance for us to give something back to those people who've supported us all along" (Terry Bell, Vancouver Province, 30 July 1997).
One of the league's most revered all-time players was now slated to spend three seasons as an addition to the courageous squad that nearly stole his spotlight in 1994.
No one expected Messier to be available in advance of the 1996-97 season's conclusion. In the weeks prior to leaving the Rangers, he had indicated that he would likely remain in New York at a reduced salary; he spoke of his loyalty to his club and suggested that would consider re-signing "for the enjoyment of playing to win" as his career earnings were sufficient (Joe Lapointe, New York Times, 28 May 1997).
In July, when the Rangers offered a one-year contract worth $3.25 million, Messier balked, proclaiming that "the Rangers did not want him back and that he was open to offers from other teams" (Frank Litsky, New York Times, 24 July 1997). He referred to their offer as an "insult" in a conference call on July 14, 1997 (Jim Jamieson, Edmonton Journal, 19 July 1997). It was an offensive gesture to the man who had brought them their only Stanley Cup since 1940.
"I didn't want to make these decisions... I had everything I wanted in New York and there was no need to go anywhere else... But things change. And change in a hurry. I knew it would get to the point where teams would get very interested and make offers that are getting very hard to refuse." - Mark Messier, July 1997 (Grant Kerr, Waterloo Region Record, 24 July 1997).
The publicly-announced price was $20 million, a necessary cost to outbid the alleged $15 million of the Red Wings and the offers of the competition. The Washington Capitals were rumored to have bid $21 million over three years, but D.C. was too close to Messier's old home for his liking: the optics of signing with a divisional rival might ultimately have deterred him from such an arrangement.
Vancouver's courtship process, in addition to discussions with Quinn and Orca Bay president John Chapple, also involved a meeting with owner John McCaw at his yacht in San Francisco (Jason Diamos, New York Times, 31 July 1997). The effort to acquire the superstar centerman was arduous, but it seemed that their efforts had been recompensed.
When the team held its announcement press conference, indeed, money was a main point of contention. Numerous clauses, including the use of #11 — unofficially retired due to the death of Canucks forward Wayne Maki — and compensation if the team's value increased during his tenure with the club, were included in the contract.
Messier described his time in free agency as "nightmare" and was relieved that the ordeal was over (Harvey Araton, New York Times, 24 July 1997). It seemed that the financial reward was his greatest motivation for leaving New York, and he made no effort to diffuse this perception. Many Rangers fans were incensed. This appeared to be a betrayal of their trust.
"The money was a big part of [signing with Vancouver], but there were a lot of other factors, too... It went well when Pat and Mr. Chapple came to Hilton Head, [South Carolina]. I just got a good feeling from talking to them both. Their ideas and their philosophies fit in with mine. I think we've got the same ideas and the same goal — winning the Cup" - Mark Messier, July 1997 (Terry Bell and Jim Jamieson, The Province, 29 July 1997).
Regardless, New York's messiah no longer represented the Rangers. His experience and wisdom would now be brought to the Vancouver Canucks' dressing room, where his new, excited crew awaited. His presence would be novel among their younger leadership group. The team's core had been together for nearly a decade and were adored as precious members of Vancouver's community. Their commitment to one another and their city encompassed years of faithful service, and yet they had more to offer — they were still relatively young.
Canucks captain Trevor Linden, a hard-nosed power forward whose fearless, relentless nature and noble qualities exemplified all of the core values of the team, had just turned 27 years old. Just fifteen months earlier, he had completed his most recent 30-goal season. It was an 80-point campaign in which he ranked fifth in Selke Trophy voting.
Gino Odjick, the team's lionhearted protector, and Bure, the team's luminary superstar, were only 26.
The team's beloved goaltender, the gracious and thoughtful Kirk McLean, had just turned 31. Many familiar favorites from 1994 remained on the roster: Jyrkki Lumme, Dave Babych, Bret Hedican, Martin Gelinas and Dana Murzyn.
Unfortunately, this close-knit family of players had struggled to rekindle that same level of success in the three seasons after their gallant run to the Stanley Cup Finals. They were eliminated in the second round of the 1995 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Chicago Blackhawks, could not advance past the opening round of the 1996 playoffs in Bure's injury-induced absence against the champion Colorado Avalanche, and barely failed to qualify for the postseason in 1997 by a four-point margin.
Attempts to improve the roster were made over the course of those three seasons, including the acquisition of Alexander Mogilny, but the team's missing piece was always the elite offensive centerman. This need became more obvious after the departure of their crafty playmaking center, Burnaby native Cliff Ronning, in 1996. The team nearly acquired that piece in 1996: Wayne Gretzky.
The infamous Gretzky phone call is a regrettable, oft-retold free agent negotiation story. A favorable result would have prevented the subsequent bedlam in Vancouver. The prospect of uniting Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny with The Great One in 1996 continues to mystify enthusiasts of the sport. It remains a gaffe that traumatizes devotees to this day, as it indirectly plunged the Canucks into a period of darkness.
Gretzky ultimately signed at a reduced rate to join the New York Rangers, apparently rejecting the St. Louis' Blues three-year, $21 million due to the wrath of controversial coach Mike Keenan behind their team's bench (Stephen Brunt, The Globe and Mail, 3 July 1996). St. Louis remains home for Gretzky — his wife Janet is from the area — but his brief stint under Keenan in 1995-96 had been enough to stay clear of his path.
An incident after the Blues' match against the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 26, 1996 encapsulates Keenan's authoritarian player management style. According to The Globe and Mail's Stephen Brunt, during the match, the Blues' Shayne Corson fractured his jaw on one of his shifts. When he attempted to play his next shift and struggled, he lamented to his coach that he could not continue. Keenan was irate, berating him with words in front of his teammates. He once again lambasted him in the team's dressing room during the intermission. Corson would not return to action until two weeks later.
Gretzky confronted his coach after the game to express the unnecessary harshness of his actions.
Keenan's response: "You're wearing the C, but I'm the goddamned coach" (Stephen Brunt, The Globe and Mail, 3 July 1996).
The Great One did not look back. He chose to play for a different coach as soon as he could. The Blues fired Keenan months later in December 1996.
The Canucks inquired about Gretzky's services, even disturbing him in his sleep with an untimely, ill-advised phone call. Their efforts were for naught. In the aftermath of their failed acquisition attempt, a desperate Vancouver Canucks management group pursued Messier the following year — a costly mistake for everyone involved.
Messier's presence became intrusive even before he debuted with the team. In early August, a new controversy began to brew: who would be the team's captain? Debate raged as those around Linden persisted with questions about the matter. The noise was inescapable. As Gary Mason of The Vancouver Sun characterized the situation, Linden was forced to endure "the uncomfortable questions. Day after day. The ones dogging him since Mark Messier arrived in town and Linden and the rest of his teammates took their places in his shadow. And people began wondering, out loud, how Linden could presume to be captain with someone of Messier's stature in the dressing room" (Gary Mason, 10 Sept. 1997).
He denied that he would forfeit his captaincy, but the questions continued, following him all the way to the other side of the Pacific Ocean. While the Canucks prepared for their unique season opener event in Nagano, Japan against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, local Japanese reporters joined along in pestering him, at which point Linden relented: Messier and he were "working the matter out" ("Messier New Canucks Captain," Vancouver Sun, 2 Oct 1997).
Although he would not admit it, Linden, the team's captain since 1991, had effectively been deposed. The handover had begun.
With the "C" on his chest, Mark Messier was expected to justify this promotion with a standard of intensity that could, at the very least, match the precedent set by Linden in Vancouver. His renown in the hockey world far exceeded that of Linden's as a physical, emotional leader, and yet Messier was a thorough letdown.
He played primarily on a line with Pavel Bure and was provided first-line minutes. He could still offer relatively-crisp playmaking, but his work along the boards was tentative at best, and he hovered high in his defensive zone far too frequently. This led to times when he was simply unable to contribute defensively, as he sometimes drifted away from the opposing defender and into the neutral zone while his team was hemmed deep in their own end.
He may have interpreted this as a necessity resulting from Bure's tendency to play lower in the defensive zone than a conventional winger, but too often he removed himself from defensive plays and relied on his teammates to gather the puck in their own end. He became a cherrypicker. His game was characterized by a sense of carelessness with the puck such that giveaways and sloppy plays became habitual.
Offensively, he offered less than what anyone could expect. He scored 22 goals and 60 points in 82 games, his lowest per-game totals since his debut in 1979-80. Our footage offers a clearer look at his on-ice impact.
As for the Canucks' faithful, they were displeased. They booed. Messier's play was just one element of this unfortunate situation, although he became a catalyst for everything that followed. On November 4, 1997, Pat Quinn was dismissed. Canucks coach Tom Renney was fired.
The Canucks then instituted a new, terror-filled era for the team: they hired Mike Keenan.
Mark Messier won his Stanley Cup in New York with Keenan as his coach at the expense of the Canucks in 1994. They shared a history and an admiration for one another. Due to the lack of a full-time general manager, Keenan was assigned to manage the team's player personnel alongside assistant managers Steve Tambellini and Mike Penny.
Gino Odjick believed— and still believes — that Messier was responsible for this tumultuous sequence of events, as well as all of the chaos involving the team's other leaders.
"Messier was brought here to help lead us... and everybody was on board waiting to go along with him... We were all looking forward to the season positively. It was going to be great. But right from the start it was clear he wanted to have all the power and wanted his own people around him... He didn't break a sweat for the first 10 games and just waited for Tom Renney and Pat Quinn to get fired... He talks to ownership all the time and he's responsible for Keenan being here and he's part of most of the trades... He's responsible for a lot of the changes." - Gino Odjick, April 1998 (Tony Gallagher, The Province, 2 April 1998).
As was the case in St. Louis and elsewhere, Keenan was a hostile presence in his team's dressing room. Players were routinely derided in front of their teammates. Martin Gelinas, Gino Odjick and even Pavel Bure were among these victims. This was Keenan's method. Messier, however, defended his coach's actions, standing by as he verbally targeted his players. The Canucks' former leadership group was dismayed. They were seen as a challenge — a threat — to the new bosses.
One example of such tyrannical conduct occurred on December 8, 1997 during a match against his previous employer, the St. Louis Blues. Keenan horrified his players when former captain Trevor Linden attempted to consol, encourage and rally his pack. Keenan interjected, "Shut the bleep up, just shut the bleep up!" and chastised the veteran leader for approximately four minutes, exclaiming, "Who the bleep are you?" Keenan's actions required a subsequent apology.
Linden was a target of constant criticism from Keenan, who accused the beloved, valorous former captain of playing at "50 per cent" (Elliott Pap, The Vancouver Sun, 5 Jan 1998).
In a different shouting match with Gino Odjick, Keenan referred to the fearless enforcer as "one of Pat Quinn's boys." Odjick responded, "Mike, you can call me stupid. You can call me a stupid Indian. But don't talk like that about people I respect." (Gary Mason, Ottawa Citizen, 31 Jan 1998).
In a March 1998 game against the Ottawa Senators, Keenan called Bure a "selfish little suck" (Jim Jamieson, The Province, 3 April 1998).
The Canucks' players became frustrated with Mike Keenan. However, throughout all of this, Mark Messier sided with his coach. This totalitarian duo had created a sense of terror in the dressing room. Details of these incidents began to leak to the media, prompting Messier to refer to the unnamed dissidents as "gutless" (Gary Mason, The Vancouver Sun, 17 April 1998).
All the while, Messier schemed behind the backs of his teammates, plotting for their removal. Gare Joyce of The Globe and Mail observed that "Messier was supposed to fill a leadership void — at least that's the way it was imagined by marketing types who had only ever ventured into the Canucks' room for autographs. Messier, in fact, created a leadership void, a space previously occupied by the general manager" (Gare Joyce, The Globe and Mail, 4 July 1998).
Vancouver Sun writer Gary Mason, meanwhile, asserted that "shortly after arriving he talked to Tom Renney about a few players he thought weren't of any use to the team" (Gary Mason, The Vancouver Sun, 17 April 1998). Messier's voice influenced the team's direction and ultimately the dismantling of the core he had been hired to reinforce.
"Messier was consulted by ownership on personnel decisions... When that happens, it's deadly." - Pat Quinn, July 1998 (Gare Joyce, The Globe and Mail, 4 July 1998)
Rather than become a mere roster member of the Vancouver Canucks, Mark Messier became its de facto manager, overstepping the usual boundaries of his role as a player. His isolated, antagonistic behavior seemed contradictory to his reputation as a team leader:
"I know how important his image is to him and how closely he guards and protects it. And monitors it too. He's the only player who gets the daily press clippings delivered to his room on the road. He reads everything that's written about him. And the battering he's taken lately in the media must sting... He's all business. Messier doesn't indulge in the easy banter of his teammates. After the game, after he's showered and dressed, he steps before his dressing room stall, stiff-backed, chin up, to offer his pronouncements on the game. Then he's gone. He's read the superstar handbook... He's often moved through this season alone. On the plane and team bus, he's sat by himself, deep in private thoughts. Most players couldn't summon the nerve to sit and chat with him." - Gary Mason, Vancouver Sun writer, 17 April 1998.
Mark Messier would not admit his own play was poor. Instead, he offered excuses such as, "We have the worst ice in the league... We've got guys who excel on great ice" and "I've had an elbow injury the last two weeks that makes my arm about 10 per cent" (Don Taylor, The Province, 31 March 1998; Terry Bell, The Province, 20 March 1998). His elbow injury could not account for his substandard play all season.
Keenan never criticized Messier's game, and yet his mistakes were obvious to many observers: "He's a proud athlete... A great athlete and he doesn't deserve it. He's taken a lot of hits (from the press) but he has a tremendous mental outlook that keeps him positive" (Terry Bell, The Province, 20 March 1998).
Other players, however, were at the mercy of the despotic coach's tirades. Such hypocrisy became unacceptable.
As of New Year's Day 1998, the Canucks possessed a record of 11-23-6. They were a bottom dweller, due partly to the team's volatile and inhospitable environment. The dressing room had rejected Messier and Keenan. None of this mattered: all of the authority belonged to the latter group, including the ability to facilitate trades.
Not long after, a mass exodus occurred. Kirk McLean and Martin Gelinas were shipped to Carolina on January 2; Trevor Linden was traded to the New York Islanders on February 6; Gino Odjick joined Linden on Long Island on March 23; Dave Babych became a Philadelphia Flyer the following day. The beloved core was disassembled in a tempestuous display of dominance.
According to Gary Mason: "When I talked to [Messier] in January he told me the team needed to be completely restructured" (Gary Mason, The Vancouver Sun, 17 April 1998). Hockey's most exalted leader received no respect from his teammates for his behavior in Vancouver, not before nor after these events occurred.
Enrico Ciccone was one of the assets acquired in the Gelinas and McLean deal. Two months later, he was dealt to the Tampa Bay Lightning after a confrontation with Keenan. The alleged incident involved Ciccone's defense of his Canucks teammate, Adrian Aucion, who he believed Keenan had unjustly belittled. Keenan subsequently demanded an apology from Ciccone but was refused, thus prompting the latter to be sent home (Terry Bell, The Province, 19 March 1998). One unnamed player defended Ciccone, but not the captain.
Upon his departure for Tampa Bay, Ciccone criticized Messier for his silence: "Usually the captain is supposed to be the players’ captain... I'm not saying there's anything wrong with Mark Messier. I was ready to die for that guy but I guess the feeling was not mutual... When something like that happens you've gotta speak up for the player" (Terry Bell, The Province, 19 March 1998).
Instead, Messier offered no emotion and no response to Ciccone. "I'm not going to react to that... It's all over now" (Terry Bell, The Province, 19 March 1998).
When Trevor Linden returned to Vancouver as a member of the New York Islanders on March 24, 1998, he received a standing ovation and support from the crowd while Messier was booed mercilessly — a moment that epitomized the perspective of the majority in Vancouver. The overzealous Messier, along with Mike Keenan, had sunk the Canucks' ship. Any remaining potential for the city's cherished collective was extinguished at the hands of this pestilent pair.
Messier was a victor once more, eradicating any traces of the previous leadership group when they failed to cooperate with his vision.
"It's been a very successful season in some ways," said Messier to reporters at the season's conclusion. "A lot of things happened that had to take place and the changes have all been positive" (Gary Mason, The Vancouver Sun, 17 April 1998). The Canucks finished 24th out of 26 teams with a record of 25-43-14.
While the Canucks were plunged into a period of decay, a new generation of Vancouver Canucks would soon emerge. However, the team would have evolved differently if not for the hiring of Brian Burke (formerly the team's director of hockey operations under Pat Quinn from 1987 to 1992_ as the team's next general manager in June 1998. Burke established boundaries for the coach and captain:
"I will simplify his life... All he has to do is play. All Mark Messier is going to be for me is a player, and he is a great player. We need Mark to play better than he did last year. I think he can and will. I don't see any change in his ability as a leader. Maybe his minutes get reduced, but that's up to Mike Keenan. We need Mark to bounce back and have a better year... Inmates don't run the asylum." - Brian Burke, Canucks general manager, 23 June 1998 (Iain MacIntyre, The Vancouver Sun, 23 June 1998).
Likewise, Keenan had now lost his faculty over player personnel decisions, preventing him from perhaps trading away numerous other players who he did not appreciate, among them, Markus Naslund. "It was a tumultuous time," said Naslund. "It really was. Every time you went to the rink something was happening. For a while there it was every man for himself. There was no stability, no long-term plan."
General Motors Place was a center for experimentation, but Keenan's trades were primarily about short-term success. If not for Burke's intervention, one wonders if the Canucks legend Naslund would have been one of the casualties of Keenan's unrestrained capacity to negotiate trades. Naslund was benched and often a healthy scratch. He was on the verge of requesting a trade, stopped only by Brian Burke's insistence on patience. Keenan was fired on January 24, 1999.
One of the iconic aspects of Mark Messier as a leader is his ability to work with young players, whether or not they are enigmatic or inconsistent. Such players as Petr Klima in Edmonton and Alexei Kovalev in New York received support from Messier. Among the characteristics that he valued were talent and skill, which both players possessed in spades.
In Klima's case, having been traded to Edmonton from Detroit during a tumultuous time in his life, Messier's gestures of good will to him and his fellow Detroit Red Wings transplants were not unnoticed. As the team's captain, he drove the Oilers' newest players to the West Edmonton Mall for their practice sessions. Klima and Messier also played on a line together with Glenn Anderson at the start of Klima's time in Edmonton. Messier won the Hart Trophy, the Lester B. Pearson Award, and the Stanley Cup in his second season as the Oilers' captain that year. This is the leader that the hockey world recalls.
Messier became that figure for a burgeoning group of young Canucks hopefuls in the 1998-99 and 1999-00 NHL seasons, who often described him as a commanding, intimidating presence. It seemed now that he was capable of being a benevolent presence all along. In his own opinion, he had changed: "I used to be in a really bad mood when we lost... But I've had to alter that perception the last three years or otherwise I would have been walking around in bad moods for the last three years... So that's been a big change" (Gary Mason, 5 Feb 2000).
"He's been our leader, no doubt... Even when we were losing he still talked all the time to us. A lot of things he's said have come to pass. He showed me that to be a winner you have to carry yourself well off the ice... I saw how he studied the game. He talked to us Monday night about Colorado's top players, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk. I've started doing that. If we're playing a team I'll try to watch them now, too." - Jason Strudwick, March 2000 (Terry Bell, The Province, 22 March 2000).
As the Canucks surged back towards the playoff race at the end of his contract year in 2000, Messier was lauded for his leadership with the team. Many observers, from media members to the Canucks' management group to the players raved about Messier's mentorship of the new core. There was a moment when it seemed that his reputation in Vancouver could begin to recover.
When the new Canucks referred to their captain, they spoke of a leader whose vocal style, experience and wisdom inspired them. Harold Druken called him a "father figure." Matt Cooke considered him to be "a good friend." Trent Klatt corroborated these sentiments: "I think bringing him back would be terrific... His presence has been pivotal to what we've done the last while... It's not just what he says but the things he does on the ice. He's been leading by example, blocking shots, playing physical" (Terry Bell, The Province, 22 March 2000).
He had finally earned the respect of his peers. His good service earned him the Cyclone Taylor Trophy as the Canucks' Most Valuable Player in 1999-00.
Thus, when the time arrived to re-negotiate his contract, the Canucks bought out the two option years of his deal so that they could explore a more affordable, alternative contract.
His words were familiar.
"Putting money completely aside, I'll see whether they want me back just as a hockey player," said Messier. "But I think it's more important to know they want me back as a player contributor and then try and work out something with the salary" (Iain MacIntyre, The Vancouver Sun, 18 March 2000).
The Canucks tabled a $3 million, one-year offer. The New York Rangers pitched an $11 million, two-year offer. Predictably, Messier chose to return to the New York Rangers. In a press conference described as "tearful," Messier spoke of the difficulty of leaving New York, and also accepted the Rangers' captaincy back from Brian Leetch.
The latter explained: "I was concerned that Mark might become a problem in the locker-room if we didn't make that move... It didn't seem right for him to be in a Rangers jersey without the 'C' on it... It would be selfish on my part if I kept it" (Ira Podell, The Hamilton Spectator, 14 July 2000).
Thus began another chapter in New York for Mark Messier, whose previous three seasons had seemingly been spent purging a roster of dressing room rivals and spitefully collecting a paycheque. Messier only led the Canucks once his voice became dominant. To achieve this sense of devout servitude, he orchestrated the demise one of Vancouver's closest families — his one-time rivals — ridiculing and dragging them to embarrassing lows in the process.
NHL veteran Trent Klatt, a member of the Canucks from 1998-99 to 2002-03, noted in the season after Messier's departure that his captain had been an intimidating presence. Klatt elaborated that many Canucks players, himself included, may not have asserted themselves as much as they should have under Messier's leadership due to his fearsome nature. His aura cast a shadow on everyone around him. Linden and Leetch felt this. One could not co-exist with him as leader. One simply did not want to undermine him. The dressing room needed to be his domain.
"When I was growing up, Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier were icons... I was intimidated by Mark. When he said `sit down,' I said `where?' You couldn't help but be in awe of him. I tried as much as I could to chime in and say the right thing. But when Mark Messier's talking and Trent Klatt's talking, who are guys going to listen to? And you didn't want to say something and have Mess think: What's with this guy." - Trent Klatt (Iain MacIntyre, The Vancouver Sun, 9 Sept 2000).
Vancouver Canucks assistant general manager Dave Nonis expressed these same thoughts.
"Mark was such a strong leader that everyone followed in behind him and relied on his ability to lead the team, which is fine because that's what he was here to do. Mess was such a dominant personality, players felt they didn't have to do those things... In some respects, it repressed the leadership ability of some other guys. With him gone, some guys will flourish in that department." - Dave Nonis (Iain MacIntyre, The Vancouver Sun, 9 Sept 2000).
Mark Messier was gone. The Canucks once more found success. In 2001, the team reacquired Trevor Linden, allowing their former captain to contribute for an additional six seasons and retire gracefully with the organization in 2008. His #16 sweater was lifted to the Canucks' rafters in December 2008. His on-and-off ice contributions, the latter of which earned him the King Clancy Trophy in 1997, were honoured in an emotional ceremony.
The relationship between Messier and the Canucks was not over, however. In 2012, he once again made headlines in Vancouver: he had challenged the Canucks over a large sum that he felt the Canucks owed. There remained that clause about further compensation that was to be paid if the team's value increased during the original lifetime of his contract -- not from 1997 to 2000, but 2002.
The team's value was estimated to be $97 million in May 1997 ("Canucks, Grizzlies President," The Globe and Mail, 29 May 1997). In 2000, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP provided an estimated team valuation of $117 million (David Baines, The Vancouver Sun, 13 Sep 2000).
However, after each of these years, the Canucks reported significant losses: $36.6 million in the fiscal period ending on June 30, 1998, $33.6 million for the same period in 1999, and $25.5 million in 2000 (Alan Adams, Jim Bray and Drew Hasselback, National Post, 24 Sep 1999; John Schreiner, National Post, 12 Nov 1999; "Orca Bay to Become," Edmonton Journal, 31 Oct 2000).
Each year, the team slashed its costs. Messier, at $6 million per season, was the team's highest-paid player and a greater burden. The average attendance decreased each year, from 17,320 in 1996-97 to 16,957 in 1997-98; from 15,802 in 1998-99 to 14,641 in 1999-00.
Owner John McCaw allocated $91.9 million to cover the team's losses during this bleak time, and a $9.1 million portion of the expansion fees from the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild helped to reduce the bleeding in 2000 (Iain MacIntyre, The Vancouver Sun, 4 Jan 2000).
To save numerous costs, including those of operating as a publicly traded company, McCaw had purchased up to $142 million of the team's shares by June 30, 2000; he bought the remainder of the shares later that year (David Baines, The Vancouver Sun, 13 Sep 2000; "Orca Bay to Become," Edmonton Journal, 31 Oct 2000). After accounting for McCaw's "revenue allocation," PricewaterhouseCoopers concluded, in 2000, that the Canucks "had no value" (David Baines, The Vancouver Sun, 13 Sep 2000).
Despite this, the team's marginally-increased financial valuation from 1997 to 2000, aided heavily by the team's significant cost-cutting measures, qualified Messier to collect his reward.
Further assurance of this extra payment was the circumstance of the team's financial and on-ice recovery in its two seasons following Messier's departure. The tireless efforts of Brian Burke and the coaching staff, as well as the toil of the core of Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, Brendan Morrison, Andrew Cassels, Matt Cooke, Mattias Ohlund, Ed Jovanovski, the Sedin twins, Trevor Linden and others, resulted in subsequent success. The Canucks became a competitive playoff team in Messier's absence.
The team's average attendance rose to 17,026 in 2000-01 from 14,641 the previous season; it increased again to 17,712 in 2001-02. The Canucks reported a loss of only $10 million in 2001 and only $3.5 million in 2002; the franchise's value, meanwhile, rose to an estimated $140 to $170 million in that period (Elliot Pap, Times-Colonist, 7 June 2001; Tony Wanless, The Province, 1 Sep 2002; Ed Willes, The Province, 6 May 2002).
The organization was better off without Messier than with him, but alas, the Canucks were expected to honor the letter of their agreement.
Messier pursued this additional amount from the Vancouver Canucks, now owned by Aquilini Investment Group, and in 2012 was awarded a $6 million settlement by sports arbitrator George Nicolau.
It was another victory for Messier. No one knew how to defeat the Canucks more than Messier did. Thus, it was apt that as a member of the team, he was a liability.
Canucks fans have not forgotten. The outstanding majority will voice their displeasure any time he is mentioned in the same breath as their team, or whenever he is cited as the "greatest leader" in hockey.
In 2014, Rogers produced a series of commercials for Gamecentre Live in which Messier is shown amicably interacting with Canucks enthusiasts. Pass It To Bulis replied with a parody that more accurately depicts the relationship between him and the team's followers.
As a Vancouver Canuck, Mark Messier betrayed his teammates, enraged millions, and became the face of injustice and misconduct among Canucks followers. Therefore, no other figure is as worthy as Messier of being considered the greatest villain in Vancouver Canucks history — in other words, the anti-Canuck.
Kevin is @CambieKev on Twitter.