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Mess's messes

Sports | Mark Messier retires as one of NHL's greatest scorers, but he was also one of its most prodigious goons

Issue: "New Orleans: Starting over," Sept. 24, 2005

This year, the NHL hopes to turn over a new leaf, and the boys of winter will do it without longtime Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers captain Mark Messier. The hockey icon who skated professionally for a quarter century announced his retirement Sept. 12-less than a month before the NHL's regular season kicks off Oct. 5.

Rangers and Oilers fans-for whom Mr. Messier helped win six Stanley Cup Championships, including four with Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton-will no doubt remember the stoic center for his dazzling stick and tough reputation. He retires second on the all-time points list behind Mr. Gretzky. Many fans will miss him.

Dallas Stars center Mike Modano won't. In 1993, Mr. Messier, skating for New York, leveled the 23-year-old rising star by throwing his right shoulder into Mr. Modano's jaw. The Stars center left the arena tied down to a stretcher fading in and out of consciousness before recovering in the hospital. Last week, he said the hit was a good lesson about skating with his head down. But while characterizing the hit as legal, he regarded it as a cheap shot.

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Cheaper still was what Mr. Messier did to Thomas Gradin and Rich Sutter. In 1984, playing with Edmonton, Mr. Messier whacked Vancouver's Mr. Gradin in the head with a two-handed slash. If Mr. Gradin had not been wearing a helmet, commentators said he could have died from the vicious hit. Mr. Messier was suspended for six games. The Canucks' Mr. Sutter, too, had a run-in with the burly center. During a 1988 game, Mr. Sutter skated deep into Oilers ice when Mr. Messier brought his stick up and clotheslined him in the face as he went by. Mr. Sutter lost several teeth, and a team official said Mr. Sutter even had hockey tape from Mr. Messier's stick in his mouth.

Perhaps Martin Strbak will be relieved Mr. Messier no longer prowls the NHL. Near the beginning of the 2003-04 season, Mr. Messier used his stick like a bayonet and speared Mr. Strbak, with Pittsburgh, in the groin during a power play. The Rangers captain's coach at the time, Tom Renney, could only shrug his shoulders. "That's an old, wily veteran taking a young guy to task," he said. "That's the way it is."

And that's how hockey has always been-a sport unwilling to change until forced. But in part, that's what the lockout was about. Clutch and grab, hook and hold, and sometimes, outright thuggery doesn't televise well, and that's bad sports economics. The hockey that returns from the yearlong hiatus that wiped out the 2004-05 season should be different than the sport struggling not only with finances, but also with competition from other professional leagues.

It's somehow fitting as hockey tries to remake its image that it sheds one of its biggest dinosaurs. Mr. Messier was perhaps one of the game's great scorers, but also one of its most prodigious goons.

Around the Horn

  • Instead of driving to the hoop, NBA star Carmelo Anthony may just want to buy a vowel. The Nuggets star-along with more than a dozen NBA icons-will appear on TV's Wheel of Fortune to help survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The players-including Amare Stoudemire, Baron Davis, Richard Jefferson, and Richard Hamilton-will partner with basketball fans to spin the wheel. At a minimum, $100,000 of game winnings will be donated to the Red Cross.
  • When aging slugger Barry Bonds made a surprise return to baseball this season, gone-at least temporarily-was his churlish and surly attitude toward the press. Instead, Mr. Bonds, who returned to play Sept. 12 from a knee injury that nearly cost him a season, cheerfully talked about how good he felt: "There's just no doubt in my mind that I can keep playing the game at a high level." To break Hank Aaron's home run mark, he'll likely need to play about a season and a half more.
  • Just weeks after retiring after his seventh Tour de France victory, American cycling icon Lance Armstrong said he's considering a comeback. Mr. Armstrong said allegations made in French press reports that a 1999 sample of Mr. Armstrong's blood recently tested positive for EPO awakened in him his competitive spirit. Mr. Armstrong called the L'Equipe report a "witch hunt" while cycling's international body said neither the French lab testing the blood nor the newspaper have turned over any real evidence to back the claims.

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