As the Rangers prepare to honor Mark Messier by retiring his No. 11 jersey before the Jan. 12 game against Edmonton at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers and MSG Network will spend the next 11 days looking back at the career of one of hockey's true legends. To make these "11 Days of Messier " even more special, we asked The Captain for a list of his 11 greatest NHL moments. Each day between now and the Jan. 12 event, newyorkrangers.com will spotlight one of these great memories.
Today, we look at the fifth of 11 Messier's memories – the Rangers' 2001-02 season opener at Madison Square Garden. Taking place less than four weeks after the tragic events of Sept. 11, the game was preceded by a moving ceremony in honor of thousands who died on that terrible day.
FIRST POST-9/11 HOME GAME
ONE CAPTAIN WON'T FORGET
Even in a hockey career as legendary as Mark Messier's, there are still moments when the game itself takes a back seat to something more important.
One of these moments occurred when the Rangers played their 2001-02 home opener against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 7, 2001
Twenty-six days earlier, the entire world had been rocked by the terrorist attacks of September 11. For New Yorkers, the 9/11 catastrophe was especially painful, as most of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day were residents of the tri-state area. Many of its greatest heroes were New Yorkers, too – the first responders who rushed to the World Trade Center site to help save others. Hundreds never returned, as the devastation at Ground Zero claimed the lives of 343 firefighters, 37 Port Authority officers and 23 city police officers.
New York was still in shock, and rescuers were still digging through the rubble, when the 2001-02 NHL season began. In the face of such tragedy, the Rangers-Sabres game seemed of little consequence, but it was also a necessary step in the national healing process. Life had to go on in the great city, and for many New Yorkers, hockey was a big part of life.
Some of the Rangers' biggest fans lost their lives on Sept. 11, as the game of hockey held a special place in the hearts of so many New York firefighters and police officers. Both the FDNY and NYPD had their own hockey teams, which would play a big role in the Rangers' home opener.
The 30-minute ceremony prior to the Oct. 7, 2001, home opener was a truly stirring event that can never be forgotten. It began with the FDNY and NYPD hockey teams skating onto the ice and forming a tunnel for the 2001-02 Rangers to skate through during player introductions.
As the players came out, they took their places at the blue line, where they would stand through the remainder of the ceremony. One Rangers player, captain Mark Messier, did not wear his helmet onto the ice that night, taking his place in the line bareheaded.
As the FDNY hockey team watched the ceremony unfold, a very dear friend was on their minds. Ray Downey, the FDNY's Chief of Special Operations who perished at Ground Zero but whose death was still not officially confirmed at the time, was both a founding member of the FDNY hockey team and a passionate Rangers fan.
The highest-ranking FDNY official to die on 9/11, Downey was beloved by fellow firefighters, who told countless stories about how much hockey meant to him. To give him a presence at the ceremony, the team had brought his fire helmet with his picture tucked into the front of its brim.
Noticing that Messier was bareheaded, FDNY hockey co-captain Larry McGee of Engine 66 in the Bronx had a spontaneous idea.
"I said to the other captain on our team, 'Gimme that hat. He'll wear it,'" McGee told a reporter after the ceremony. "Everyone laughed and thought I was out of my mind, but I skated over and gave it to Messier."
A bold move, indeed, even for a firefighter.
"It was all done on a whim and I didn't want to embarrass (Messier)," said McGee. "I introduced myself and told him who Ray Downey was and that it would be an honor if he would wear the helmet. He was a perfect gentleman. He said, 'Sure, whatever you need.' If there was one man worthy of wearing that helmet and paying tribute to Ray, it was Mark Messier."
A visibly touched Messier donned the helmet. He flashed his famous smile as the Garden erupted in cheers.
The ceremony continued with a video tribute to the 9/11 victims and those who had worked so valiantly to rescue them. This was followed by the introduction of some true New York heroes directly affected by the attack, a group that included Port Authority Canine Unit officer David Lim, Local 40 ironworker Gene Flood, Local 14 operating engineer Robert Gray, Ladder 24 firefighter Brian Thomas and NYPD Emergency Services officer Lt. John Murphy.
Then Messier took the microphone and addressed the crowd, pledging that the Rangers would dedicate their 2001-02 season to the first responders of New York City.
"We dedicate this entire season, from the top of the organization on down, to you," he said.
Fittingly, the Rangers went out and beat the Sabres 5-4 in overtime that night. Messier set up the game's first goal, which happened to be Eric Lindros' first in a Rangers uniform.
While the OT victory closed an emotional evening on a happy note, it was only the start of the Rangers' participation in the city's post-9/11 healing. They continued to honor victims and heroes throughout the season, and months later, following the 2001-02 home finale, Messier gave the Blueshirt off his back to Rosalie Downey, Ray Downey's widow.
Asked to list his 11 most memorable moments of his NHL career, Messier was quick to include this one. For those who know The Captain and have followed his participation in charitable causes throughout his career, it's hardly a surprise that the 2001 home opener would be so memorable for him.
Messier's tireless efforts on behalf of those less fortunate stretch from his early years in Edmonton, when he worked with the Alberta Lung Association and Christmas Seals Campaign, to his career in New York, where he has worked to raise millions of dollars for the Tomorrows Children's Fund. Even in his brief stay in Vancouver, Messier embraced the community, helping raise money for Canuck Place Children's Hospital.
The Captain's history of working to help others is part of what makes him so special in the world of sports. There was no greater evidence of this impact than that Oct. 7, 2001, pregame ceremony, when some heroic and hurting people reached out to Messier as a tribute to their fallen friend.
No athlete could ever receive a higher honor.