Mark Messier is one of the greatest players to ever play hockey.
In the history of the NHL, he ranks second in games played, eighth in goals, third in assists, and third in points. He won two Hart Trophies and was a Conn Smythe winner too. Commonly thought of as one of the greatest leaders of all-time, his teams won six Stanley Cups.
He played for three teams in his NHL career.
The Edmonton Oilers and New York Rangers have both retired his jersey. He’s one of the most beloved players in the history of both of those franchises. To their fans, he’s a hero.
In Vancouver, where Messier signed as a free agent on this date 20 years ago, he is the most hated player to ever play for the Canucks.
And it’s not close.
No Canucks player has ever hit a nerve like Messier did, and still does today. The venom that spews from Canucks fans online at the mere mention of Messier is unparalleled.
When ads featuring the former Canucks captain flashed on the big screen at the Heritage Classic at BC Place in 2014, boos echoed through the stadium. Rogers receives all sorts of backlash every time they put him on TV.
The ‘Captains’ Club’ bar in Rogers Arena had photos of every captain in team history on the walls. Messier’s picture was included, although it was tucked away inconspicuously.
If you still wear a Canucks’ jersey with #11 Messier on the back in this city, believe me, people point and laugh at you.
— Paul DeBron (@pauldebron) July 28, 2017
If you weren’t in Vancouver during the 1990s, it’s probably hard to understand why.
It’s easy to forget that it was a euphoric moment in Vancouver when Messier signed with the Canucks as a free agent. At his introductory press conference on July 28, 1997, Messier slipped on a brand new Canucks jersey – the first year of the orca logo – with arms raised.
THIS DATE IN 1997: After six seasons in New York, free agent Mark Messier signed with the @Canucks.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) July 28, 2017
Fans and media alike imagined a Stanley Cup between those arms one day.
Again, it’s easy to forget, but Messier, who signed a five-year contract worth $6 million per season which included a $2 million buyout option after the third year (which the Canucks exercised), was thought to be the missing piece for a Canucks team that had come within a game of winning the Cup just three years earlier.
The Canucks missed the playoffs the year prior, but conventional wisdom was that they underperformed, and with Messier’s talent and leadership, could become Cup contenders again.
Upon Messier’s arrival, the Canucks had the likes of Pavel Bure, Alex Mogilny, and Trevor Linden, all in their mid-to-late 20s. Much of the core group that helped the Canucks on their magical run in 1994 were still around too.
Before the season began, feeling the pressure of having ‘the greatest leader in pro sports’ on his team, Linden offered the captaincy to Messier. Messier accepted the offer from the most popular player in franchise history.
Messier also accepted the #11 jersey, which had been unofficially retired since 1974 after the death of Wayne Maki, an original Canuck who was lost to brain cancer.
Easy to forget now, but these weren’t overly controversial moves in the public eye at the time. The city was caught up in Messier fever and people were excited about what he could do for the team. He brought a Cup to New York, now it’s our turn.
But instead of becoming a Cup contender, the Canucks fell off a cliff.
After eight straight losses dropped the team’s record to 3-11-2, owner John McCaw fired longtime general manager Pat Quinn. Three games later, head coach Tom Renney was fired.
Mike Keenan, Messier’s buddy from their days with the Rangers, was brought in to coach the team and was given interim general manager duties.
That’s when the fun began.
Messier and Keenan, in the eyes of fans, ripped the team apart. There was a reported rift in the dressing room. Some sided with Linden, others with Messier.
You can guess which player Keenan sided with and which one he eventually shipped out of town.
Before the end of the season, Keenan not only traded away Linden, but dealt a number of other players who the fanbase identified with. Kirk McLean, Dave Babych, Martin Gelinas, and Gino Odjick were all shipped out of town before the end of the season.
Keenan and Messier, villains in 1994, had now ripped out the heart of the Canucks team that fans fell in love with. And they did it from the inside.
On the ice, Messier was a shadow of his former self.
The year prior, he scored 84 points in 71 games. He added 12 more points in the playoffs, helping the Rangers to the Conference Final. He was only two years removed from a 99-point season.
But Vancouver never saw that Messier.
Whether it be due to age or indifference – you know which one Canucks fans lean towards – he didn’t produce. Once one of the most feared players in the game because of his talent as much as his toughness, Messier became a perimeter player in Vancouver.
Messier was second in scoring in his first season as a Canuck. Playing primarily with Pavel Bure, he scored 60 points in 82 games. He was overlooked for the Olympic team, which Linden was picked for.
He scored 48 points in 1998-99, and added 54 points in 1999-2000.
Age is logical way to sum up his lacklustre play in Vancouver, but was it more than that? Was his heart in it?
Mark Messier wearing sunglasses indoors with the #Canucks
— Rob Williams (@RobTheHockeyGuy) May 17, 2017
Fans question this, and there’s a case to be made for it.
Messier racked up 122 and 88 penalty minutes his last two years in New York before moving to Vancouver. Penalties are not desirable in hockey, but penalty minutes are often an indicator of desire, especially in those days. With the Canucks Messier’s PIM totals were 58, 33, and 30.
Messier went back to the Rangers after cashing in with the Canucks in 2000. His first year in New York, he racked up 89 PIMs. He also scored 67 points that season, more than any of his three seasons in Vancouver.
Long after his days were done in Vancouver, Messier delivered another blow to his image, after he squeezed $6 million more out of the team when he won an arbitration case. Messier reportedly had a clause in his contract that would compensate him if the value of the franchise increased over the life of his contract, which expired in 2002.
The Canucks were in danger of moving to another city after the Messier years, but somehow he cashed in. Again.
Rightly or wrongly – and fans can certainly take it too far sometimes – Messier is the personification of everything that was wrong with the Canucks. His name, his face, Lay’s potato chips – if it has to do with Messier, Canucks fans hate it.
That’s why 20 years later – fair or not – Messier is the still most hated player in the city of Vancouver.