Second place a major achievement

Mark Messier has gone from having a thick mop of long hair flying in the wind, to showing no hair at all.

He played 52 games in an upstart league that died 24 years ago, when four of its teams joined the NHL.

During his career, the game itself has been through both evolution and revolution, and he had the pleasurable experience of watching much of Wayne Gretzky's career, up close.

And now he stands No. 2 to Gretzky on the all-time scoring list. His second-period goal against the Stars on Tuesday night pulled him into a tie with Gordie Howe, at 1,850 points, before he took sole possession of the second spot with an empty-netter in the final seconds of a 3-0 victory in Madison Square Garden.

He was mobbed, and he should have been. For a while there, as little was made of his inevitable and imminent accomplishment, we were wondering if this would be sufficiently saluted when it happened.

It's interesting how we shadow and chronicle record-setters, often to the point of excessive ridiculousness, and even make much ado when a man becomes the 78th player to reach a round-number milestone, yet mostly yawn when someone approaches a standard that once was the pinnacle.

When he is about to become No. 2.

Why is it that, relatively speaking, we tend to treat No. 2 as if it is roughly as relevant as John Nance Garner and Alben Barkley?

You might be asking: Who? Hint: They either were the second-leading scorers during NHL seasons in the 1940s, or they were vice presidents of the United States under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, respectively. (And, you bet, we had to look that up, too.)

There have been 33 players who have scored 500 goals in the NHL, and the recent fashion at least has been for the bench to empty at the appropriate moment as his teammates congratulate him for reaching the benchmark. It's a given, though the league formally must grant permission.

NHL game notes now routinely point out that a player is on the verge of getting his 100th career assist, and scoreboard screens -- at least between the advertisements and the kiss-cam, "make-noise!" stupidity and that has become the generic game-night experience around most of the league -- flash the news when it happens as if the accomplishment is monumental.

Of course, baseball chroniclers gleefully point out when a man becomes the 16th switch-hitting shortstop to play in over 100 games on artificial turf on Tuesdays, because that's what great baseball journalism has become.

So we were wondering: Would the Rangers mob Messier? Emptying the bench for a congratulatory celebration requires league permission in advance.

It takes a bit of presumptuousness to run through the possibilities, but it shouldn't have been considered anything but prudent in this case.

When it happened, Messier indeed deserved to be mobbed -- and more.

It doesn't matter that at the rate he is going, he will be 67 years old when he passes Gretzky to become No. 1. (He will be 1,006 points behind Gretzky when he passes Howe, and at 40 points a season ... )

Gretzky is w-a-a-a-ay up there, at 2,857 points.

But that's symbolic of his stature in the game, of course.

Messier got within one of Howe with a goal against Colorado on Sunday night. Significantly, it came at the end of a tic-tac-toe rush, with Messier rushing to the doorstep. And then he passed Howe with the two goals Tuesday.

It shouldn't matter that it's an arguable point that Messier has hung around too long. It's arguable because anything is arguable in this era of hand-waving, pick-an-extreme-position coverage, but this can't be disputed: As long as a team is willing to pay you that seven-figure salary, significantly diminished skills alone aren't a conclusive case for retirement.

Plus, Messier's intangible contributions -- primarily involving leadership and grit -- still are considerable, and that's even more important on a roster that sometimes still can seem to involve such bad chemistry, they're like the junior-high kids getting out of control with the Bunsen burners.

Finally, the fact that a man whose skills are not of the breathtaking variety, as were Gretzky's and as Mario Lemieux's still can be, can end up No. 2 on the all-time list is a testament to what still can be rewarded in hockey. He has adapted his game over the years, adjusting both for his own changing abilities and the changing of the sport itself. Overanalyzing Messier's career in terms of era, teammates and even Howe's WHA years is gratuitous nit-picking.

Messier made his points.

It's a lock that he will join Oilers teammates Gretzky, Jari Kurri and Grant Fuhr (plus Paul Coffey, who will go in next year) in the Hall of Fame.

Geez, the mere fact that we feel compelled to recite Messier's bona fides to say that becoming the No. 2 scorer in NHL history is a big deal is an indictment of our strange outlook about measurable achievements in sports.

"I haven't celebrated coming in No. 2 too many times,'' Messier told writers on Monday at the Rangers' training center in Greenburgh, N.Y. "But this is one thing that warrants, I guess, a little recognition, just because of what Gordie's done and the numbers he was able to post. For us mere mortals who have played this game, I guess being No. 2 is not bad."

Also, on Monday, Messier said of passing Howe: "There's trepidation going past him because of who he is and what he meant to the game."

There shouldn't have been. Messier has been a winner. The Oilers' 1990 Stanley Cup, won after Gretzky's departure, and the Rangers' 1994 championship, were further validations of his ability to both inspire and produce.

In this instance, No. 2 is a huge deal.

They shouldn't have just poured off the bench.

They should have dropped the ball in Times Square.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."