Messier, 9/11 and the FDNY helmet

NHL

Excerpted from NO ONE WINS ALONE by Mark Messier. Copyright © 2021 by Mark Messier. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

***

Everyone knew somebody who’d been affected — or worse.

For weeks in Grand Central Terminal there was a bulletin board with pictures of people who had never come home that day, with messages asking, has anyone seen my beloved husband or sister or son? And every day there were funerals. Every day.

Don Maloney, a longtime Rangers great, who was the team’s VP of player personnel at this time, had a brother-in-law who died in the towers. One of Brian’s best friends from Boston College, John Murray, whom we all knew, was one of the 658 Cantor Fitzgerald employees working in the North Tower who was killed.

Ace Bailey, a player who had taken me under his wing as a temporary teammate in Houston all those years ago when I’d missed an Oilers flight and had been sent down to the minors, was on the second plane to hit the towers.

We were all so numb.

A friend told me about walking into the locker room at his golf club near our practice rink only to find American flags draped over three of the lockers near his.

Five days after the towers fell, a few of us were asked to go down to Ground Zero to try and offer some moral support. It was a humbling day. Eric, Mike Richter, and I, along with Darren Blake and John Rosasco, got in a van that was met at a fenced-off checkpoint. We did a brief stop at police headquarters before continuing on.

Vehicular traffic on the island had resumed, but was still restricted south of Fourteenth Street. I lived in Manhattan, and as close as I thought I was, this was a different world: broken windows, debris from the fallen towers on the street and on top of cars, and a horrible, acrid smell. It was devastated and desolate.

The silence outside was overwhelming. There was no small talk in the van as we rolled through deserted streets. The closer we got to the site, the quieter and heavier the atmosphere became inside our vehicle.

And then there we were, out of the van, on a mountain of rubble that stretched for blocks long and wide. It was still smoking — and everywhere that terrible smell.

I’d had dinner before at the Windows on the World restaurant, which had been on the 106th floor of the North Tower. What a magical place, so perfectly named. Now here I was standing amid the building’s ruined infrastructure, the twisted steel beams from the seventieth and eightieth floors looming just ten feet over my head.

We served soup to the rescue workers who were digging through the pile, still looking for signs of life that, at this point, they must have known they were unlikely to find. We shook some hands and told people how grateful we were, how grateful everybody was, which is something they might not have known, because this was what they had been doing, day after day, for hours on end. They picked through the rubble looking for the living only to find the dead.

I don’t know if our presence or words were at all helpful — maybe they were. They seemed to be. We just wanted to show that people cared about what was going on. I think everyone wanted to help somehow. Even through all this, despite being covered in soot, there were some smiles on their faces. It was a powerful reminder that athletes have a responsibility. Helping people through their daily grind, and giving hope or inspiration, is not a trivial thing.

We stayed for about an hour or so and then went back to police headquarters. There was a holding room in the basement where the loved ones of those who were missing could gather and wait for news.

We spent some time there, shook some hands. We did a lot of hugging. I can still feel the convulsive sobs of more than a few people who leaned into us for support. Grief is better when it’s shared. The closer it is, though, the more intense it becomes. You can’t say you understand how people are feeling, because you don’t. You just try to console the best you can.

I remember one woman who came up to Mike and said, “Thank you for coming down and thinking of us. It means so much and we’re going to bring you back when they find them all and we have a parade.”

It was heartbreaking. After seeing what we had an hour before, there was no way, at this point, they were going to find anybody alive in that pile. People were clinging to hope.

mark messier
mark messier

This was the backdrop against which we started playing games again. We had to. As President Bush said in an emotional address to a joint session of Congress nine days after the attacks: “I ask you to live your life.” Somehow, across the country, things had to go on, whether we felt ready or not.

That night, we had a preseason game in Philadelphia, the first two periods of which were marred by a number of fights. President Bush’s speech was aired live during the second intermission, on the big screen above the ice. The warm-up stopped. Everything stopped, and everybody — players and fans — watched and listened. “Fear and freedom are at war,” President Bush somberly said. When he finished speaking, it just didn’t feel like the night to play anything.

Players from both teams glided to the center of the ice, shook hands, and the game was declared a tie.

Two and a half weeks later, we had our home opener at the Garden against the Buffalo Sabres. Neither team wore their traditional jersey, but instead sweaters that simply had “New York” stitched diagonally on the front.

There was a special ceremony before the game, honoring those who had not only rushed in heroically to save lives on 9/11, but were still working on the recovery mission down at Ground Zero. Members of the hockey teams of New York’s police and fire departments were on the ice. When they were introduced, the Garden crowd, which had been chanting, “U-S-A,” was overcome with admiration and gratitude.

As captain, I was the last player introduced. Without my helmet, I skated out between the officers and firefighters, and took my place on the blue line. I wasn’t expecting what happened next. It was one of those New York moments I will never forget, and I know I’m not alone in that.

One of the FDNY guys, Larry McGee, skated over to me. He was wearing his firefighter’s helmet, and there was a picture taped to the front, of a man in uniform. Larry explained in that brief moment that the man in the picture was a fire department legend named Ray Downey. He loved hockey and once had been captain of the fire department’s team.

A former marine, Chief Downey was one of the most decorated firefighters in the department’s history. Over his thirty-nine-year career, he’d been cited fourteen times for bravery. He was a nationally recognized expert on rescue operations and had been the commander of that effort at the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks. As we stood there on the ice that night, Downey was still missing.

Larry said it would mean so much if I would put on the helmet to honor the chief. It was simple and spontaneous, but it had a powerful impact, saying: We are with you. We are all with you.

More than four hundred first responders lost their lives on 9/11, including Chief Downey. It would take eight months for his remains to be identified. To this day, I carry around his Mass card in my wallet.

Excerpt: Mark Messier, September 11, and the FDNY helmet originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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