Most of the Rangers' celebration of Mark Messier was conducted at center ice Thursday night, but the speeches and the banner with his No. 11 on it belonged over in the corner of the rink at the Seventh Avenue end of Madison Square Garden.
That's where Messier was when the Rangers were protecting a 3-2 lead with 1.6 seconds remaining in Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup finals with the Vancouver Canucks, his skates on the edge of the red circle to the right of goaltender Mike Richter as center Craig MacTavish hunched down for a face-off. But when MacTavish swatted the puck back toward the corner, Messier didn't move toward it.
"I went straight for Bure," he said.
Messier made sure that Pavel Bure, the Canucks' sensational scorer, would not get the puck, much less get off a shot. And when the buzzer sounded with the puck still in the corner, the Rangers had won the Stanley Cup after a 54-year famine. Messier jumped high one, two, three times. Fireworks exploded. Blue and green laser lights criss-crossed the ice.
Messier, a joyous smile shattering his game face, soon accepted the Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman at center ice, where Thursday night he accepted the cheers from what he fondly called the "Garden Faithful."
When Messier, still fit in a dark suit, strode across a red carpet, he was greeted with a standing ovation that endured for 1 minute 50 seconds, then the sellout crowd -- 18,200 Garden Faithful -- stood throughout the ceremony as nearly two dozen of his 1994 coaches and teammates as well as 18 members of his family were introduced.
"Messi-ay," the Garden Faithful chanted every so often. "Messi-ay."
No athlete ever embraced New York as Messier did, and Thursday night it embraced him. During his tearful thank you to everybody involved with that Stanley Cup moment, he remembered how he got a "life experience I had never. " and he reached for a handkerchief. "I learned more about life," he finally continued. "I'll never forget the 10 years I had the honor to be the captain of the New York Rangers."
Soon he walked toward the Seventh Avenue end, where the Stanley Cup was perched. He lifted it, as he had lifted it in 1994, then he watched the banner with No. 11 on it raised to the rafters. When it hung up there with those of Rod Gilbert (No. 7), Eddie Giacomin (No. 1) and Richter (No. 35), the Garden Faithful cheered even louder for the hockey player who justified the word captain as part of his name.
Only a few team leaders have been known as "the captain." Willis Reed with the Knicks and Pee Wee Reese with the Brooklyn Dodgers come to mind.
Messier was named the Rangers' captain as soon as he arrived in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers before the 1991-1992 season. According to Glen Sather, then the Oilers' general manager and now the Rangers' boss, Messier had been "the heart and soul" of five Stanley Cup championship teams, even when Wayne Gretzky was there.
But at the time, as Sather said, the Oilers "did not have the resources" to pay the salaries that Gretzky and Messier deserved. Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, and Messier knew the Rangers were the only franchise that could afford him.
"Paramount owned the Garden then," Neil Smith, then the Rangers general manager, said before Thursday night's ceremony. "We had signed Adam Graves, but Stanley Jaffe of Paramount wanted us to do something bigger. Nothing was bigger than Messier. And I knew there was no way the Rangers were going to win the Stanley Cup if we didn't bring in someone who had done it before."