By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on February 9, 2024.
Mark Messier owns six Stanley Cup rings.
He’s also been on teams where the next victory feels like it might never arrive.
That’s exactly where the Edmonton Oilers were at a month into the NHL season.
The club sat 2-9-1 through 12 games – 31st in the overall standings and already eight points out of the Western Conference’s second wild-card spot.
Three months later, Edmonton has completely flipped the script.
Despite having a 16-game win streak – one short of the league record – snapped Tuesday by the Vegas Golden Knights, the Oilers are no longer a team that can’t defend, can’t get a save, and has difficulty completing consecutive passes.
They are instead firmly back in the contender conversation.
“Connor McDavid is driving that bus,” Messier said of Edmonton’s superstar captain. “He has not shrunk under this focus, under this spotlight. He might have even become more emboldened, and his leadership has been tested in many different ways.
“He’s going to come out of this a better and more complete player.”
Messier, who won five Cups with the Oilers and another with the New York Rangers, has been a panellist on ESPN’s NHL broadcasts since 2021.
The Oilers, meanwhile, are back in a playoff spot – the team fired head coach Jay Woodcroft in November and replaced him with Kris Knoblauch – after their surge up the standings.
Messier said the last three months for McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the rest of the group should give them confidence about the process.
Now it’s about replicating that over and over into June.
“You have to have an unwavering belief in yourself,” said Messier, a Hall of Fame centre widely viewed as hockey’s greatest leader during his 25-season NHL career. “You have to have an unwavering belief in the culture that you’re creating on the team, you have to have an unwavering belief in the coach. And then you have to have an unwavering belief in the players around you.
“Anything less than that will probably diminish your chances.”
Messier said the roller-coaster that Edmonton, which made the 2022 Western Conference final and bowed out in last spring’s second round, has already experienced this season should help.
“Ebbs and flows and ups and downs, both emotionally and physically,” said the 15-time all-star. “You will be punched in the face during the playoffs. If you haven’t experienced adversity at some point “¦ that’s a tough time to be tested.
“They’ve definitely got themselves back in the conversation.”
Apart from his television work, Messier is also set to reprise a familiar role – as a potato chip spokesman – during Sunday’s Super Bowl broadcast.
The 63-year-old was part of the Lay’s tongue-in-cheek “Betcha Can’t Eat Just One” advertising campaign that first hit TV screens in the late 1990s. The commercials included Messier joining a beer league team called the “Pylons” and missing a flight to sign autographs after he couldn’t eat just one chip.
Lay’s new catchphrase – “Betcha Can’t Pick Just One” – revolves around the company’s array of flavours.
“The commercials turned out to be these really interesting writings (with) some of the funny Canadian hockey terminology,” Messier said of his first Lay’s go-round. “Happy to be a part of it again.”
Messier has had a keen eye on another of his former teams – the first-place Vancouver Canucks and head coach Rick Tocchet.
“The first thing you’ve got to do when you go into a team like Rick did is galvanize it,” Messier said. “You cannot win with a team that is not in complete harmony, working together, all pulling on the rope in the same direction.
“Rick seems to have been able to do that.”
Messier spent three rocky, playoff-less seasons in Vancouver before returning to the Rangers in 2000 to close out his career
“(Tocchet has) held the players accountable,” he said of the coach in charge since January 2023. “He’s proven a lot of people wrong. He’s done an incredible job.”
MESS IN CINCY
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman mentioned Cincinnati as part of a long list of potential expansion cities during the league’s all-star festivities last week.
Messier played part of one season in southwestern Ohio with the World Hockey Association’s Stingers in 1978-79 after a five-game amateur tryout for the Indianapolis Racers.
“Incredible experience,” he said of that brief stop in Cincinnati alongside Robbie Ftorek, Barry Melrose and Mike Gartner. “A lot of cities that can be great choices (for NHL expansion). Cincinnati is one of them.”
Messier also joked he brought about the demise of the Racers and Stingers after both ceased operations ahead of the 1979 NHL-WHA merger.
“The youngest player to ever fold two franchises,” he said. “There’s no other player that you can point to that – at 17, 18 years old – folded two franchises.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2024.
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