The NHL's changing of the guard continued Monday as Mark Messier retired after a quarter-century of duty.
Messier, 44, leaves with six Stanley Cups, 1,887 points and a legacy of leadership. His new hockey address will be the Hall of Fame.
"It's a bittersweet day for the National Hockey League," said Wayne Gretzky, Messier's friend and former Edmonton Oilers teammate.
"Mark has done so much for the game of hockey and taught so many of our young players. He was an exceptional leader who was unselfish, hard-working and dedicated. He truly loved the game."
Add former Rangers teammate Tie Domi: "It's a sad day for hockey, he's one of the greatest players ever. And probably the best teammate ever."
Messier joins Scott Stevens, Al MacInnis, Vincent Damphousse and James Patrick in retiring on the eve of training camp, ending distinguished careers put on hiatus last season by the lockout.
His health is fine, Messier said, noting that's not always the case in hockey.
"It's been a long career. I've achieved a lot. There was just really nothing left for me to achieve I guess," he said on a conference call. "It was just time to move aside and go on to something else."
In his heyday, Messier cruised the ice like a shark. There was raw power mingled with a mean streak. He wielded power on and off the ice, taking on opponents and owners alike.
"With Mark it was all about winning," said friend and former Oilers teammate Kevin Lowe. "His whole game was channelled and focused that way. His off-ice preparation, his on-ice preparation. I don't think anybody ever did it better in the history of the game."
After Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles, Messier stepped up and led the Oilers to another Stanley Cup in 1989-90 - his fifth. But he left Edmonton in a dispute over money and went to New York for the 1991-92 season, helping restore Ranger pride. With Messier as captain, New York topped the league and won the Cup in '94, defeating the Canucks in seven games.
"It's an end to an era for a unique individual," said Florida Panthers GM Mike Keenan, who was the Rangers head coach in 1994. "I had the opportunity and a privileged glance at his ability.
"The game will miss him for sure."
Pat Quinn coached against Messier in that final.
"Mark, I think, provided some real leadership for that team," said Quinn, now coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "Apparently lots of things went on behind the scenes there and he was a big part of keeping that group together. Behind the scenes he had kept that very talented and veteran team on line."
At his prime, Messier talked the talk and walked the walk.
With the Rangers trailing New Jersey 3-2 in the 1994 Eastern Conference final, Messier promised New York would force a seventh game. He made good on his word with a hat trick in a 4-2 victory.
New York won the deciding game 2-1 in double overtime to advance to the final.
"It was very comforting, to say the least, knowing that a guy could in terms of his leadership say and then be able to go out and follow it up with his on-ice production," said Lowe, now GM of the Oilers.
"Like a lot of the great generals in wartime history, that's the best way to describe him."
Messier credits his father Doug for helping plant the seeds of that leadership.
"There's a lot of people that helped me along the way. Too many right now to name. But nobody can do it on their own, nobody can win a team sport on their own and nobody can be a leader on their own. And I had unbelievable help along the way."
The ties that bind these former Oilers are strong. Messier, Lowe and Oilers teammate Paul Coffey were all grooms at Gretzky's wedding.
Respect for Messier remains high, even though the Moose had slowed down in recent years.
"He's one of the best players to ever play the game and arguably the best leader ever in the game," said Toronto captain Mats Sundin.
Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish said Messier's intensity in the dressing room was not always put in the right context.
"The biggest misperception is that Mark would grab guys by the scruff of the neck to toe the line about commitment to the team. But he made every player feel like a winner. And for every player if you're treated like a winner, if you feel like a winner, then you do things indicative of a winner."
Off the ice, Messier was a hot property in New York. He drove a Bentley, dated models, met Madonna and appeared on David Letterman.
But a contract dispute led to another move, this time in 1997 to Vancouver where he spent three seasons.
In Vancouver, Trevor Linden yielded the captaincy to Messier. And the newly acquired star got to wear his No. 11, even though the Canucks had previously elected not to issue it out of respect for the late Wayne Maki.
Messier speaks warmly of those years, particularly his final season in Vancouver in 1999-2000. "One of the best experiences I've had in hockey."
"You could see a real team starting to form," he added.
Vancouver forward Todd Bertuzzi said being a teammate of Messier's for three seasons with the Canucks was a huge honour.
"You seem to see a lot of the older guys falling off right now," said Bertuzzi. "As a young guy coming in those were the guys you followed and respected.
"When Mark was here it was an exciting time for us. I remember as a kid he was one of the guys I looked up too. Being able to play with him was a huge honour for myself and a lot of guys who followed his lead."
Canuck captain Markus Naslund was asked what Messier passed on to him.
"How to keep a lockeroom tight," said Naslund, who took over as captain after Messier left Vancouver following the 1999 season. "How to make everyone feel important and show respect.
"It was a treat being around him for three years. Not only me but the team owes him a lot from all the stuff he taught us. He's going to go down as one of the all-time greats."
During his second stint in New York, which covered the final four seasons of his career, Messier and the Rangers failed to make the playoffs.
Messier's production went down. After a 67-point season in 2000-01, he averaged 35 points his last three seasons in New York with 106 points in 195 games.
While Messier won more in Edmonton, he felt a deep attachment to New York.
After Sept. 11, Messier and other Rangers visited Engine Company 74 in Manhattan. The hulking hockey superstar did more than just visit - he couldn't imagine what the rescue workers went through that day so he put on a firefighter's gear. "He wanted to see how tough it would be to carry the stuff up the stairs in the World Trade Centre," Rangers president Glen Sather was quoted by nhl.com.
While Messier is no longer a Ranger, his love affair with New York continues.
"It's something you can't describe unless you've actually lived in New York. It becomes a part of who you are. I love New York, I love the area. I love, obviously, the team."
He says he hears "every day" from Rangers fans about that '94 Cup win.
Messier talked to Lowe about a possible return to Edmonton this season, but opted for New York and then retirement.
The two-time league MVP (1990 and '92) leaves with 694 goals, 1,193 assists, 1,887 points and 1,910 penalty minutes in 1,756 games. He ranks second only to Gretzky in scoring.
The numbers don't really matter, he said.
"I've never really thought about any individual records or anything like that for most of my career," Messier said.
His final game was March 31, 2004. Messier scored but in keeping with the Rangers' slump in recent years, New York lost 4-3 to Buffalo.
Messier says he will stay in hockey in some capacity, hopefully with the Rangers. His family also beckons - he just had a baby three weeks ago, adding to a family that already includes a two-year-old and an 18-year-old who is playing hockey in Texas. "The plate's full," he said.
There are no regrets about leaving hockey.
"I just feel really good about the decision," Messier said. "I've had a year and a half to think about it. . . . It's the right thing to do."
The Rangers will retire Messier's number on Jan. 12, when the Oilers visit Madison Square Garden.