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09-24-2003, 06:30 AM
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Messier Committed To Winning
September 24, 2003
By BRUCE BERLET, Courant Staff Writer

He will turn 43 in January, and he's recognized as one of the premier leaders in sports. A spot in the Hall of Fame is secure.

So why would Mark Messier return for a 25th season with a team that hasn't made the playoffs for a franchise record six seasons?

"You've got to love the game enough to do all the things necessary to be successful," Messier said. "If the desire and dedication goes, then your skills and everything else follow rapidly."

Messier was leaning toward returning and continued to work out late into the summer.

"This was the first time I had to ask myself if I really wanted to play again, so it was a good test for me," Messier said.

Messier hemmed and hawed into August, talking to general manager and coach Glen Sather between workouts, some time off and the birth of his second son, Douglas Paul, July 15.

"It's a big commitment in the summer and season to stay in shape," Messier said. "And it's a big commitment to do the things you have to do in order to win."

Sather said he never pressured Messier.

"With a guy who has played as long as he has, you don't go to him and say it's time to quit," Sather said. "You have to give him enough respect so that he comes to you and says, `You know, I think I'm ready to retire.'"

Sather told Messier he might have to play a lesser role.

"He'll be happy to do anything he can do to help the team," Sather said. "He's not going to [complain] if he's playing 10 minutes a game and killing penalties."

Messier, who averaged 181/2 minutes last season, said that since turning pro at 18 years old, the team has always come first. .

"The roles have changed every year with different groups of guys, different teams and different positions," Messier said. "I don't ever see that changing, but you have to put the team in front of yourself. It's the only way a team can win, if it gets the collection of guys that are willing to sacrifice themselves and their own needs for the team."

Messier will probably start on the fourth line with Matthew Barnaby and former Springfield Pic Dan LaCouture. Messier began last season in a similar role with Barnaby, but injuries elevated him to a more prominent role.

Messier said he feels "200 percent stronger" than a year ago, when he was recovering from shoulder surgery that limited him to 41 games in 2001-02 and led to career lows of seven goals and 23 points.

"It takes about a year to rehab and get your full strength back, and I was at about 40 percent and couldn't do a pull-up and barely a pushup coming into camp last year," Messier said.

Messier was productive last season until he injured his thumb in December. He finished with 18 goals and 22 assists. Messier is third all-time in points (1,844, six behind Gordie Howe), fourth in assists (1,168, one behind Ray Bourque) and eighth in goals (676).

Messier said he is more comfortable this year because there are more familiar faces on the team.

"I think it gives us a little more in common than the last couple of years," said Messier, who returned to New York in 2000 after three years with the Vancouver Canucks. "So while we haven't been that successful lately, it's still good to have the same basic players coming back so you feel a little bit of ownership of the team and have some responsibility for what has happened.

"The names and the talent are only one aspect of a successful team. There are so many other variables, and, quite honestly, there have been some players who have had the opportunity to play for the Rangers that didn't deserve it.

"There have been far too many players who didn't have the pride or the discipline or the care for the Rangers' uniform and organization, and it has shown the last six years."

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