MUNICH Ė He won six Stanley Cups during his 25-year NHL career, along with three Canada Cups. Now, Hall of Famer Mark Messier has stepped into coaching. Team Canada at the Deutschland Cup was his first assignment.
After finishing his playing career in 2004 after 1,756 regular-season games (second behind Gordie Howe) and 1,887 points (second behind his long-time team mate Wayne Gretzky), Mark Messier returned to hockey in 2009 when the New York Rangers named him a special assistant to the president and to the general manager. Later Hockey Canada named him general manager of the menís national team at the 2010 IIHF World Championship.
Last week, the 49-year-old Hockey Hall of Fame member gained his first coaching experience when he was behind Team Canadaís bench in four exhibition games in Europe. He defeated Switzerland with a selection of Canadian players from the Swiss National League A, 6-2, in Kloten, Switzerland, on Tuesday.
During the long weekend, a Canadian selection of players under contract in Germanyís DEL league participated in the four nations tournament Deutschland Cup in Munich. Team Canada lost to Germany, 4-3, in the opening game, which was followed by a 2-1 overtime loss against Switzerland, when the Swiss scored in the last second of the extra period. Canada finished the event in third place after beating the Slovaks 4-3 in a shootout on Sunday.
Messier was also named Team Canada coach for the Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland, December 26-31. The coaching position for the national teamís most important event of the season, the 2011 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia, has not been announced yet.
How were your first days as a head coach?
Very good. Itís very exciting to be this close to the game again and competing and having a chance to have some kind impact on the game.
Did you miss being close to the game?
I wouldnít say miss the ice, or miss playing. But itís totally different to be a coach or GM. Obviously, coaches have much more contact with the players, more involvement in the game, so from that standpoint itís exciting.
What do tournaments in Europe such as the Deutschland Cup or the Spengler Cup mean for hockey fans in Canada?
Thereís no international tournament that Canada enters that is not important. We feel that thereís a tremendous amount of history and tradition that has gone into Hockey Canada representing Canada around the world, and so we take all these tournaments very seriously to keep the pride Canada has established.
What do you think about the European teams you faced at the Deutschland Cup, and in the World Championship last spring?
The playing level in all those countries has risen dramatically. Itís getting better and better. The game has become so international that it has become similar on all levels, in North America, Germany, Russia, Switzerland. I donít see a big difference technically compared to 15 years ago. Coaching has become much better since I started 30 years ago. You have to pay attention in international hockey, otherwise you get beaten.
Wasnít it difficult for you to select players you didnít really know?
Absolutely, that was a challenge. I relied heavily on Hockey Canada and the people over there that knew the players to make the selection. The challenge was for me to come over for a short amount of time and get to know the players as quick as possible. Itís a challenge when you donít know them, but itís nothing that canít be overcome.
It was probably not difficult to convince those players to wear the Team Canada jersey.
No, thatís always something most players are very proud to do and I think that in itself speaks very highly of the job Hockey Canada has done into the way they treat the players when they come over. They treat them, and their families first class and the experience is always very positive.
It was a different situation last spring when you were the GM for Canada at the World Championship. That must have been kind of a stressful time for you during the selection process.
Not stressful, but challenging as well. It was an Olympic year, we had a lot of injuries to key players. We felt the best thing for the program was to bring a young team and give them experience. And hopefully thanks to this experience the team in 2014 will be better off. At the same time we didnít want to diminish our chances to win the championship.
You had many family members in the team staff. Was this special for you?
My father has been involved in hockey for over 50 years as a coach and mentor of many kids in Canada, so I think he has done a tremendous service for Hockey Canada without being actively related to Hockey Canada. His hockey knowledge is second to none in my opinion, so he was a great resource for me in many areas there and I was very proud to have him on the staff.
The World Championship is pretty successful among hockey fans in Europe with high attendance figures and TV ratings. What could be done to make more North Americans follow it?
I think because of the job Hockey Canada has done and with the profile of the players and how theyíre treated, that all helped to raise the profile of the tournament in Canada. We have much better co-operation with the players than weíve had in the past. Itís a great experience for them, together with the Olympics. It puts them in a good position to hopefully play on the Olympic team one day.
Because of all that, Canadians are acknowledging the tournament more and more each year. Europeans grow up with World Championships. Players dream of representing their country at the World Championship and every four years at the Olympics. We grow up a little bit differently in that.
We want to play in the NHL and win the Stanley Cup. Having said that, now as the Olympics is coming, and the past experiences dating back to 1972 and the Summit Series and the Canada Cups that followed after that, international hockey has become very interesting for the Canadians, so we have a much better understanding now.
You had several post-career jobs. What do you enjoy most and what would you like to do in the future? Do you prefer coaching or rather a managerial position?
Iím gaining a lot of experience in all the different areas now from scouting to managing to coaching to developing. Pretty much all the areas. Iím not doing any of it to look at the future, Iím only doing it because it is fun and exciting and challenging.
How about coaching at the next World Championship in Slovakia?
I donít know. Those arenít my decisions. At this point of my career Iím always willing to listen to anything that might be interesting and challenging.
Could this assignment lead to the World Championship coaching job?
Thatís not why Iím doing it. Iím not doing it to advance my coaching career and take it to the next level. Iím doing it for the tournaments here and to see how it goes and than see what happens after that.
You won six Stanley Cups. Which of these wins did you enjoy most?
I get asked this question a lot and itís impossible to say. Much commitment and effort was put into all the Cups. Any time youíre lucky enough to win one championship is very special, but winning six, you can imagine the admiration and respect for the players that scarify themselves for winning the Cup.
How has the NHL and the game changed since you started playing?
It changed in any regard. The players are bigger, stronger, faster. The coaching techniques have become much better. The goaltending position is probably the most improved position of all players. The parity in the league is much greater than it has ever been before. A few rules changes have opened up the game, so itís more entertaining. The game continues to evolve and itís getting better and better.
Which coaches impressed you most during your playing career and which coaches influence you most now?
Iíve had so many and I think as a player and as a coach you always take different information of all people youíre with, whether itís coaches or players. I was always interested in peopleís ideas and philosophies, so I took a lot of many people.
So, thereís no particular coaching idol for you?
There are so many.
How did Vancouver 2010 influence Canada as a country, and also as a hockey nation?
It was a very powerful experience for the Canadians from a hockey perspective. We Canadians like to think of ourselves as the best hockey country in the world. To have the best tournament in the world on our home soil in the Olympics, the highest-profile tournament in the world, and to come out with a gold medal was something that I think was good for the country, for our confidence as a country and obviously for Hockey Canada it was very important.
Sochi 2014 must be an interesting topic for you. You work for an NHL team and not all franchises seem to be in favour of the idea to have a break during the Olympics.
There are some things to work out, but Iím sure theyíll work it out. Iím sure the NHL will be well represented.