Oilers Revisited: Messier’s Triumphant Return to Edmonton With Rangers

Ex-Edmonton Oilers sticking it to their old team is a sight that fans in Oil Country are all too accustomed to. More than a year after their favorite adopted son was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, Wayne Gretzky just happened to be in Edmonton when he broke the NHL’s all-time points record. And The Great One did it by scoring the game-tying goal with less than a minute remaining, to boot. How do you top that?

But of all the instances where an erstwhile Oiler proved an ungracious guest, no one has had a more spectacular very first game back in Edmonton than the city’s favorite native son, Mark Messier.

Mark Messier New York Rangers
Mark Messier, New York Rangers (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images/NHLI)

Thirty years ago this weekend, on Jan. 23, 1992, the St. Albert product made his initial return to the rink he called home for a dozen years, leading the New York Rangers to a 3-1 comeback victory at Northlands Coliseum with trademark clutch performance, scoring the game-winning goal in the third period and adding an assist.

“I wanted to get a goal very badly,” Messier told reporters inside the victorious visitors’ dressing room. “But I didn’t want to take anything away from the most important thing, which was winning the game. I’m just glad that my goal came at a good time.” (from ‘A happy return for Messier has Oilers feeling blue’, The New York Times, 01/24/92)

The highly anticipated game was No. 900 of Messier’s NHL career, the first 851 of which came with the Oilers before he was dealt to New York in exchange for Louie DeBrusk, Bernie Nichols and Steve Rice on Oct. 4, 1991.

Of the seven future Hall-of-Famers who made up the core of Oilers’ dynasty years in the 1980s, Messier was the second last to exit Edmonton (the last, Kevin Lowe, would join Messier in New York a season later). He was already a legend in the Alberta capital even before captaining the Oilers to a fifth Stanley Cup in seven years – and first without Gretzky – in 1990.

Hero’s Welcome for Messier

This was a homecoming befitting the fearless forward who racked up 392 goals and 642 assists in orange and blue. Hours before puck drop, Messier was the subject of a media gathering that heretofore had only been so large for a visiting player when Gretzky returned.

Related Link: Worst Trades in Oilers’ History

The throes of battle never once rattled Messier during his quarter-century NHL career. But before all the cameras and lights, Messier seemed a bit unnerved by all the attention directed towards him, as described in The New York Times.

“I’m really excited about it, but the whole buildup has been the toughest part,” he said. “After all the hype and the first shift is over, the most important thing is to settle in and think about winning the game.”

In pre-game warmups, Messier received a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd of 17,711, who wanted to say thank you given they never really got to say goodbye. Even those fans that might have guessed it still probably didn’t believe that when Edmonton lost the 1991 Campbell Conference Final series 4-1 to the Minnesota North Stars, it was Messier’s Oilers swan song. The man affectionally known as “Moose” made it known during the Canada Cup in September 1991 that he would not report to Oilers training camp without a new contract, and within a couple weeks, Messier was gone, just as Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Gretzky and Juri Kurri before him.

After Effects of the Messier Trade

The trade worked out much better for the Blue Shirts than the Oilers. In his first season on Broadway, 1991-92, Messier won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Then in 1994, he captained the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup since 1940 with a career-defining postseason that established his reputation as hockey’s greatest leader.

The key player Edmonton received in the deal, Nicholls, didn’t report to the Oilers for more than two months. He’d hoped to be traded back east closer to his family, which eventually happened in January 1993 when the All-Star centre was dealt to the New Jersey Devils after just 95 regular season games with the Oilers. (from ‘Nicholls joins Oilers, hopes for trade’, The Edmonton Journal, 12/7/91)

There was a fracture in the relationship between Messier and the Oilers, but that’s ancient history now. In 2007, the Oilers raised Messier’s No. 11 to the rafters, while the stretch of road that links Edmonton to St. Albert was renamed Mark Messier Trial.

Meanwhile, the bond between Messier and Edmonton is stronger than ever. When the Oilers honored Lowe with a banner raising ceremony at Rogers Place earlier this season, Messier got a larger reception than anyone, including the man of the hour. No matter the occasion or the circumstances, Messier can’t help but be the most popular man on the ice in this town. Just like thirty years ago.

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