Former Edmonton Oilers forward Mark Messier greets fans during the closing ceremonies at Rexall Place following the game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Vancouver Canucks on April 6, 2016 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta. Photo: Codie McLachlan / Stringer / Getty Images
NHL Superstar Mark Messier Talks about Magic Mushrooms, Hindu Texts and Wayne Gretzky
In his new memoir, "No One Wins Alone," the six-time Stanley Cup winner says mental conditioning is as important as physical training, and reveals how he discovered "the zone" / BY Roy MacGregor / October 28th, 2021
He is 60 years old and openly admits to once tripping on magic mushrooms. The experience, he believes, gave him important insight, just as his reading of ancient Hindu texts has given a deeper appreciation of the meaning of life.
We are not speaking of some faded rock star who, decades ago, was in a psychedelic band. We speak, instead, of straight-laced Mark Messier, who once played with the Edmonton Oilers, a team that won five Stanley Cups, and then with the New York Rangers, where, in 1994, he led them to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years.
Over four decades, Messier played in 1,756 National Hockey League games, just 11 short of the legendary Gordie Howe. He scored 694 goals and 1,193 assists for an impressive 1,887 points, third best in league history. He made 15 All-Star teams, was named league MVP twice and, of course, has those six Stanley Cup rings.
And yet, curiously, Messier became known far more for leadership than for trophies. He became hockey’s consummate captain, the legend forged forever in 1994, when he guaranteed his Rangers would come back against the powerful New Jersey Devils and end New York’s 54-year drought.
For many years, friends and publishers tried to convince Messier to put his thoughts on leadership into a book. Finally, he agreed, and he has scored a winner with No One Wins Alone, working with an assist from NBC sportscaster Jimmy Roberts. Readers who expect a leadership manual will find it is a memoir; those who expect a memoir will find it is about leadership – and very much about family.
“To understand me,” Messier writes, “you have to know that hockey is not the most important thing in my life – family is. … In some ways, for me, hockey is simply an extension of family.” He has always tried to live by the advice of the best coach he ever had, his father Doug Messier.
The book is dedicated to Doug and his mother, Mary-Jean Messier. Doug is hale and hearty at 85, while Mary-Jean passed away in 2019. She was “an amazing woman,” the author says in an interview from his home in New York. “Always a smile on her face. Always positive. Everyone loved her.”
The same could not be said for his father, a hard-nosed defenceman who bounced around the minor leagues before retiring at 36 to become a teacher. Doug regularly led his team in penalties and, was so reviled that some teams would gang up on him. Once dispatched to the dressing room after a brawl, Doug cold-cocked the first player through the door at the end of the game – one of his own teammates. If they weren’t going to fight for him on the ice, he warned them, they’d have to fight him off the ice.
And yet Doug was a quiet, loving husband and father to Paul, Mark, Mary-Kay and Jennifer. Mark was born in St. Albert, close to Edmonton, but he and his siblings grew up wherever Doug found work as a professional hockey player. Doug was so determined to improve his family’s lot in life that he took university courses whenever he could, graduating with a master’s degree in education from Portland University while he played for the Buckaroos of the Western Hockey League.
“My Dad had a big influence on me,” Messier says. “Obviously in the hockey development, but also as a Dad. He was big on loyalty and honesty and integrity. He helped me in every way.”
Doug knew Mark’s biggest interest was hockey. “School just wasn’t for me,” he remembers. “I knew it, and he knew it, too.” At 17, he turned pro with the Cincinnati Stingers.
He was a typical teenager in a strict hockey culture where, as he says, “if you’re five minutes early, you’re late.” He missed busses and practices, and seemed interested more in partying. At the end of one season early in his career, he and Paul and two buddies took off for Barbados, where they met some partiers who went off to pick psilocybin mushrooms that grew in a nearby field. They made a large tea, drank it and waited.
“Soon enough,” he writes, “I felt not only happy, but elated. What followed was an experience unlike any other I’ve had.”
He came to believe athletes should work as much on their mental conditioning as on their physical conditioning. He began to study the “zone” – that special place where everything seems exactly on for the athlete. He began to read extensively. His Uncle Vic, an adventurer with an interest in Buddhism, got him reading books on Eastern philosophy.
“I had to learn to live without distractions,” he writes. “I had to be able to use body and mind to get to that zone. It shouldn’t happen out of the blue.”
He matured slowly but surely. When his close friend Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, Messier, at 27, assumed the captaincy of the Oilers. “I had a lot to learn,” he says. “You have to know how you’re conducting yourself. You can lead by example. You can lead from behind. It’s a learned art. I cringe when I see these teams make young players captain so young.”
Messier runs an annual leadership camp in New York that combines hockey and study, and is a great believer in what he calls “Self Talks.” It’s about creating unwavering belief in yourself and learning to deal with failure. You overcome it, just as he did with the New York Rangers in 1994, when he told reporters, “We know we’re going to win game six, and bring it back for game seven.” And then did just that.
There is, of course, a great deal of hockey in the book, from his first time on skates to his final game in the NHL. He talks about how he skated as if stuck in mud before former figure skater Audrey Bakewell changed his stride. He talks about being an NHL rookie with the phenomenal Gretzky, and when No. 99 choked up at his post-trade press conference, he told the media, “I promised Mess I wouldn’t do this.”
“Mess” – or “Moose,” as he was also known – tells a great tale about journeyman Dallas Eakins joining the dynasty Oilers and how, just before a faceoff, Eakins skated up to Gretzky and said, “Gretz, where do you want me on the draw?” “Well,” Gretzky answered, “where I’d really like you to be is up in the press box,” and grinned.
No One Wins Alone is the only hockey book ever to end with a quote from a Hindu sacred text, the Chandogya Upanishad: “There is a light that shines beyond all things on earth, beyond us all, beyond the heavens, beyond the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in your heart.”
In hockey, heart has as high a value as skill. And there is a great deal of heart in this book.
This story appeared in the October/November 2021 issue of Zoomer magazine.