Whenever someone describes Mark Messier, the term leadership always comes to the forefront.
And well it should. He was the emotional and physical leader of the dynastic Edmonton Oilers, even when good buddy Wayne Gretzky was the official captain. One Gretzky went Hollywood, Messier led the Oilers back to the championship just two seasons later. And then his legendary status as one of pro sports greatest leaders of all time was cemented in 1994, when he guided the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup - Manhattan's first in 54 years!
The Canada Cups
So it should come as no surprise that when you think of Mark Messier's play in the Canada Cups, his leadership stands out first and foremost. The three time Canada Cup champion was instrumental in both the 1984 and 1987 Canadian victories. He took a back seat to the likes of Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey, but his fearless play and win at all costs attitude intimidated the Russians and all other nations.
In 1984 the Soviets sent a more physical lineup, led by Vladimir Kovin. It was Messier who delivered the message right back at the Soviets, rearranging Kovin's face in a famous (or maybe it should be infamous) stick carving incident.
In 1987 Messier was most often matched up against the famed Soviet Green Unit - the KLM Line with Krutov, Larionov and Makarov. Messier shutdown Larionov in particular. By doing so, he showed his teammates that he was willing to sacrifice goals and assists for the good of the team. Everyone on Team Canada noticed, and even superstars like Dale Hawerchuk and Michel Goulet gladly accepted lesser roles.
"Mark was very instrumental in bringing that group together," said Canadian head coach Mike Keenan.
"How Mark impacted his team was incredible," he added. In Game Two in 1987, we were tied after regulation. He came in and just jacked the room right up. It was really an incredible experience. And the team stayed jacked up, even more so for Game Three. Honest to God, you could feel the energy in the room, like I've never experienced in any situation before or after. The energy was so high, it was like they were walking on air after he spoke."
Almost A No-Show For '91
1991 was a tough tournament for Mess personally. Due to injuries, he missed the entire training camp and was expected not to play at all. Then, on the last day of camp, he limped in and was named to the team. He played a quiet and largely ineffective role, but when the team needed him would be ready to come through.
And the team did need him. Wayne Gretzky, clearly the tournament's best player, was crunched from behind by USA's Gary Suter, rendering him unable to play in what proved to be the decisive game. The loss of The Great One could have proved deadly for Team Canada, but Mark Messier, along with Paul Coffey, really took the bull by the horns and kept the team confident and focused. Messier himself scored the all important goal in the third period of Game One to calm the team down, then opened the scoring in Game Two. Despite his injuries, Messier was dominant when the time came.
Mark Messier is one of the league's all time greatest players, and one of the tournament's all time greatest performers. If they were ever to name 20 Canadians of any era to an all Canadian dream team, Mark Messier would be there, and would likely be their leader.