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Stanley Cup Finals : His Scowl Tells It All, and Message Is: Don’t Mess With Messier

Times Staff Writer

Mark Messier doesn’t always look as if he’d just as soon rip your head off as shake your hand.

Last summer, in fact, after he had helped the Edmonton Oilers win the National Hockey League championship for the third time in four years, Messier and teammate Kevin Lowe went bar-hopping with the Stanley Cup.

By all accounts, it was a glorious party.

“Mark lives every day like it’s his last,” Lowe said. “That doesn’t mean he’s frivolous or reckless, but his attitude is, ‘Why put off until tomorrow what we can do today? Let’s do it today and have some fun.’

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“And that’s the way he plays--like there’s no tomorrow.”

That may explain his scowl, which has intimidated untold numbers of Oiler opponents, not to mention reporters.

“His game face is the most intimidating in hockey,” said teammate Craig Simpson, a former opponent. “Other guys are intense in the sense that they’re absorbed in the game, but outwardly and physically, nobody is as intense as Mess.”

Not many are as valuable to their teams, either.

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For, although record-setting teammate Wayne Gretzky, the game’s greatest offensive player, commands the lion’s share of attention, Messier is the undisputed leader of the Oilers, who will take a 2-0 Stanley Cup championship series lead into Game 3 tonight against the Boston Bruins at the Boston Garden.

It is Messier who sets the tone in the locker room.

Although he can be precisely that at times, “he doesn’t have to be totally intimidating,” said Oiler assistant coach Ted Green. “Because of what he’s accomplished and what he does for the team, he commands a great deal of respect. So, a few of the right words said with some anger or some passion usually have the right effect.”

His many contributions don’t end there, however.

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Though he plays in Gretzky’s shadow, Messier, 27, is regarded as perhaps the best 2-way player in all of hockey.

A 100-point scorer for the fourth time this season and the league’s No. 2 scorer in the playoffs, the 6-foot 1-inch, 205-pound center is considered unmatched for his combination of speed and power.

“Some nights, he’s awesome,” said Oiler co-coach John Muckler. “He’s scary. I would not want to be a defenseman and have him come down on me at about 50 miles an hour, with the strength that he has.

“He’s going to go around you, or he’s going to hurt you.”

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Simpson said his teammate rarely chooses subtlety.

“He’ll either run over you,” Simpson said, “or he’ll run over you.”

Jacques Demers, coach of the Detroit Red Wings, said that Gretzky, Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Messier are the three most dominant players in the NHL.

His style, though, differs greatly from those of Gretzky and Lemieux, who rely more on guile and craftiness.

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“With Gretzky and Lemieux, you can’t read their moves,” Demers said. “Messier tells you what he’s going to do, but then he challenges you to try to stop him anyway.”

With his full-speed-ahead approach to the game, Messier has piled up big numbers with the Oilers. The Edmonton native has told friends, however, that his game should not be measured in goals and assists.

“He often says that he wants to be recognized as a guy who wins championships, as opposed to a guy who has a lot of personal records,” Lowe said. “And his play is indicative of that.”

In a film documenting the Oilers’ 1986-87 season, “The Boys on the Bus,” Gretzky said he played for the fun of it. Messier said he played to challenge himself.

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“As a team and as a player, you’ve got to prove yourself over and over again,” said Messier, who has established career-high point totals each of the last two seasons. “I find it a challenge to go out there and try to finish in first place every year and to try to win every playoff series and to try to win Stanley Cups.

“We’re all out there going after the same thing. Hockey is a physical game and it’s an intense game. And if you’re not as sharp and intense as you can be, you’re going to get beat. It’s as simple as that.”

The pugnacious Messier comes from a close-knit family. Three of his brothers and sisters live with him in his Edmonton condo and they, along with his parents, help run the family business, a wholesale and retail clothing line called Number Eleven, the number Mark wears on his jersey.

His father, Doug, is a former player and coach, and his brother, Paul, plays in a professional league in West Germany. A sister, Jennifer, is married to Bruin defenseman John Blum.

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Blum calls his brother-in-law a “pretty mellow guy” away from the rink. “He likes to golf and water ski and have a lot of fun,” Blum said.

On the ice, Messier prefers a little more physicality.

At one time, Messier was thought to have a future only as an enforcer. Playing for his father at his first junior training camp, the 15-year-old Messier happened upon a copy of the team’s roster in the dining room. Next to his name were three big question marks.

Two years later, as a 17-year-old rookie with the Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Assn., he scored only 1 goal in 47 games.

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He didn’t develop into an offensive star until after he was drafted by the explosive Oilers, who joined the NHL in 1979. He scored a career-high 50 goals in the 1981-82 season and when the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup in 1984, Messier was their No. 3 scorer in postseason play and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.

He could still pack a punch, though.

During the 1984 Canada Cup series, an elbow thrown by Messier opened a cut on the face of Vladimir Kovin of the Soviet Union. Twenty-five stitches were required to close the wound. Later that year, Messier was suspended for 10 games after his punch had shattered the cheekbone of Jamie Macoun of the Calgary Flames.

Another Flame felt his wrath last month. A clean but forceful check by Messier in Game 3 of the Oilers’ 4-game sweep of the Flames squashed Perry Berezan against the boards and took him out of the playoffs.

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“When Mark is determined to turn a game around, he does it,” Green said. “And when he’s determined to put a little fear in somebody, he does it.”

And how does he do it?

“With his physical presence, with the look in his eye and with a few choice words,” Green said.

It’s an often frightening combination.

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Stanley Cup Notes

The Oilers are 2-10-2 in the Boston Garden, where the ice surface is 9 feet shorter and 2 feet narrower than it is at Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum. . . . Tell it to the Lakers: Paul Halloran, sports editor of the Lynn (Mass.) Evening Item, told the Edmonton Sun: “We’ve got two crowds, as different as night and day, in Boston. The Celtic crowd is yuppies. They could be at the theater. The Bruin crowd is blue-collar. They’re boisterous. People go to hockey as a release.” And Sandy Burgin of the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram and Gazette told the Sun: “Boston people don’t like to admit it, but the IQ of the average Bruin fan is about one level above the wrestling crowd.”

Bruin goaltender Reggie Lemelin told reporters that the Oilers, who have limited the Bruins to only 26 shots on goal in two games, have learned to be more defensive out of necessity. “They didn’t have to four years ago,” he said. “They dominated hockey then, but the competition is a lot better now. They’ve adjusted. They might be arrogant, but they’re not stupid. That’s why they win.” . . . Wayne Gretzky, who has an acute fear of flying, stayed either on his feet or in the cockpit Saturday for all but a few minutes of the Oilers’ 5-hour charter flight from Edmonton.


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