Messier Makes Emotional Homecoming

Thursday, July 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — Mark Messier is back. Back in New York and back with the captain's 'C' on his Rangers jersey.

Messier made a triumphant return to the team he lead to the 1994 Stanley Cup at an emotional news conference Thursday morning at Madison Square Garden.

The 39-year-old center, who spent six years in New York, returned after a stint with the Vancouver Canucks. When he put the on Rangers sweater, with the 'C' sewn on, for the first time in three years, Messier could not hold back the tears.

``I knew what it meant to be a Ranger before and how tough it was leaving,'' said Messier, who signed a two-year deal late Wednesday night with New York that is worth upwards of $12 million. ``To be able to come back is exciting for me and my family.''

The presentation Thursday morning began with a highlight video and built from there.

It reached its peak when it was disclosed that Brian Leetch had relinquished his captaincy back to Messier, who ended 54 years of frustration by carrying the Rangers to their first title in 54 years.

``I feel a little bit strange wearing the sweater right now with the captain's 'C' on it,'' Messier said after raising his arms in triumph. ``I think people know what I feel about Brian. For him to turn the captaincy over and for me to accept it from Brian is truly an honor.''

Messier left for Vancouver as a free agent following the 1997 playoffs, as a rift developed between the star player and Rangers management. Neil Smith, the general manager at the time, was fired after last season and replaced with Glen Sather, who signed the 18-year-old Messier to his first contract with the Edmonton Oilers.

With Sather on board, Messier's return was inevitable. Working out a contract with Messier and his agent and father Doug was not a problem.

``When Mark's father and I negotiate a deal, we've never had a problem,'' Sather said. ``We knew he wanted to come here and we wanted him.''

Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts made sure all problems with the organization and Messier were over. A glass case filled with dirt and a wheelbarrow with shovels were brought out so Messier and Checketts could bury a hatchet and start anew.

``We all make mistakes,'' Checketts said. ``But the past is the past and today is a day of moving on.''

The announcement came just one day after Ron Low was hired as the Rangers' coach.

The Rangers will once again have an Edmonton feel. Sather was both a coach and GM with the Oilers, Low is a former Edmonton player and coach, and Messier won five titles there.

Ted Green and Walt Kyle will be Low's assistants. Green was an Edmonton assistant last season and Kyle coached the Oilers' AHL affiliate in Hamilton.

Since Messier left , neither he nor the Rangers have been in the playoffs.

The Canucks opted to pay Messier a $2 million buyout for the final two years of his five-year contract instead of being on the hook for $6 million a season, making him an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

Messier, who had 17 goals and 37 assists last season, won four Cups in Edmonton with Sather as coach and the fifth there with Low's New York predecessor, John Muckler.

If Low had Messier when he was coaching the Oilers, he might never have left.

``I know what Mark brings to the table,'' Low said. ``He's an incredible leader and people rally around him.''

Messier, the fourth-leading scorer in NHL history and tops among active players, first came to the Rangers just one game into the 1991-92 season in a trade with the Oilers.

In his return, Messier will take pressure off veterans such as Leetch, Adam Graves and Mike Richter — all members of the 1994 team who were there Thursday to welcome Messier back.

In 21 NHL seasons, Messier has 627 goals and 1,087 assists. He had 183 goals and 335 assists in six seasons with the Rangers.