Only two-and-a-half years removed from his mother driving him to bantam hockey practice, Mark Messier played in his first professional game.
He was 17 in 1978 when he got a tryout with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association. In five games, he failed to register a point and the team lost each one. Just as quickly the Racers folded and his first paycheque – US$2,200 – bounced as high as Simone Biles during a floor exercise.
A little more than a month later, Messier lined up with the WHA’s Cincinnati Stingers for the first time. When he stepped onto the ice against the New England Whalers, former Maple Leafs great Dave Keon was the opposing centre and Gordie Howe was on the right wing.
Mr. Hockey would soon retire but he was still imposing.
“I watched him with a mixture of awe and caution the entire game,” Messier writes in his memoir, No One Wins Alone, which will be in bookstores on Oct. 26. “It was partly because I was a fan, sure, but it was self-preservation, too. He was three times my age and still as mean as a rattlesnake. I knew all the stories about how lethal his elbows were.”
Those were the beginnings of a Hall of Fame career during which Messier won six Stanley Cups and forged a friendship with Wayne Gretzky so close that he served as one of the Great One’s groomsmen when he married Janet Jones and was chosen godfather to the couple’s first child, Paulina.
The volume, penned with help from journalist Jimmy Roberts, will fascinate hockey buffs but it is not written expressly for them. As much as it is about pucks and sticks, it is also about leadership and winning.
“In a lot of jobs outside the world of sports, there may not be as clear or singular a goal, but I still think it is critical for leaders to create an environment where colleagues have a collective purpose they can strive toward,” Messier writes. “People are inspired when they work for organizations that have a shared vision. They are more passionate and productive, they take pride in their work, and a culture of trust and commitment is created.”
Messier was the Edmonton Oilers captain in 1990 when they won their lone Stanley Cup without Gretzky, and in 1994 was captain when the New York Rangers captured their first Cup in 54 years. He remains the only player to serve as the captain for two different Cup-winning organizations.
Messier last played in the NHL for the Rangers and now works part-time as a studio analyst on ESPN hockey telecasts.
“I’m sitting down in front of a television and watching hockey, just like I have since I was six years old,” Messier, 60, said this week by telephone from South Carolina, where he has long owned a home. “I’m really doing what I have always done.”
A lot of surprises are revealed in Messier’s book
Messier’s pro hockey career spanned 26 seasons. He is second to Gretzky on the career list for playoff points, third to Patrick Marleau and Howe for the number of regular-season games played, and second only to Gretzky for career number of points scored in the playoffs and in the regular season. He won the Hart Trophy twice as the NHL’s most valuable player and in 1984, the first year the Oilers won the Stanley Cup, he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs.
As such, there is a lot to be covered in No One Wins Alone. A number of surprises are revealed across its 344 pages. Most will remain a mystery so as not to ruin them for readers.
But here is a taste.
Messier recounts arriving for his first training camp with the Oilers in 1979 dressed in leather and riding a motorcycle. He notes that he spent the preceding summer getting a tan in Southern California and says that bleach-blonde hair spilled out from beneath his helmet.
“Yes,” he deadpans. “I once had hair.”
That year, in his first NHL season, he missed a team flight because he went to the wrong airport. (At the time, Edmonton had two commercial airfields.)
Panicking, he called the Oilers office and explained where he was. The receptionist told him not to worry, that a ticket awaited him at the Air Canada counter at the Edmonton International Airport.
When he got there, a ticket was waiting for him, just as she said. It wasn’t to St. Louis, though, where the Oilers played their next game. As punishment, Glen Sather, Edmonton’s fabled coach, sent him to Houston, where the club had a minor-league affiliate.
“I was crushed,” Messier writes. “Up until that point, it was [already] the worst day of my life.”
The book covers his failures and greatest accomplishments, the philosophy and principles he adopted from Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm Gladwell, Buddhism, the spirituality of Indigenous peoples, and magic mushrooms.
The latter, drunk in tea during a trip to Barbados, both freaked him out and opened his mind to new experiences.
“The result was a deep and lasting appreciation for the diversity of human beings,” he writes. “People cannot only act in different ways but they can think in different ways that I never imagined. From there, I realized that intolerance is often due to a person not being able to respect this fact.”
In conversation this week, he is amiable and sincere. For all of the hard edges and intensity that he exhibited as a player, he seems like a guy who would be fun to share a beer with and shoot the breeze.
He says he was asked numerous times to write a memoir but never had the desire.
“I wasn’t sure it would be interesting enough,” he says.
‘I was in the hockey business, but what I did was galvanize people’
Two years ago, Messier and Roberts sat down and began poring over notes that Messier had jotted down and kept to himself for 30 years. The collaboration took thousands of hours and the finished product is well worth the effort and time.
“Leadership is important to everyone,” Messier says. “I would hope that Fortune 500 leaders could read [the book] and take something out of it. I was in the hockey business, but what I did was galvanize people.
“There are many layers of leadership that I didn’t know about when I was younger. I look at it like martial arts. There are belts along the way.”
The book is about bright lights and late nights and hard life lessons. It is about inclusion and teamwork, and it is written with sensitivity and humour.
A few months after they won their first Stanley Cup, the Oilers players received rings with an estimated value of US$20,000. When Gretzky learned the training staff had been given rings with cubic zirconias he was irate and had those settings replaced with diamonds at his own expense.
“It wasn’t about the value of the jewellery. It was a statement about the value of team members. A mistake corrected. I say this all the time,” Messier writes in the book. “Culture is your beacon, your lighthouse by which to navigate your way home.”
He is asked to discuss two highly skilled teams that have not recently won a Stanley Cup. He talks about the Maple Leafs and Oilers a bit, and then broadens the conversation to include the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights. He points out that Washington and Tampa Bay failed before reaching the pinnacle of the sport.
“Lots of teams go through the same journey on the way to a championship,” Messier says. “Very few have short fuses. It is usually a long process. At some point, a team has to evolve in its way of thinking to where the only thing that matters is winning. When you get to that point, everything changes. New doors open to you. "
Yes, he won six Stanley Cups, Messier says. But then, “I failed in 20 other years.”