Trio saluted for improving hockey in U.S.

NEW YORK -- Fifteen years after Mark Messier and Mike Richter led the New York Rangers to an elusive Stanley Cup title, they are still being feted for their efforts.

The latest festivities came Wednesday night when they were honored with the Lester Patrick Award, recognizing contributions of outstanding service to hockey in the United States. The former Rangers were joined by Jim Devellano, who has spent more than four decades in hockey -- largely with the Detroit Red Wings -- in this year's class.

The award was created in 1966 and is presented annually by the NHL and USA Hockey to honor the memory of Lester Patrick, a former player and longtime coach of the Rangers. Patrick's life and career were also celebrated along with the newest honorees Wednesday.

Brian Leetch, another stalwart on the 1994 Cup-winning Rangers, joined his former teammates -- two years after the Connecticut native received the award.

The stories of how those Rangers erased 54 years of hockey futility in New York still flow freely and never seem to get old for those telling them or listening.

"That team seemed to catch the imagination of all the people not only in hockey, because the Rangers hadn't won in 54 years, but people from outside the game, as well," said Messier, the captain of the club. "The team set a great example for the kids, and to be a part of that is why I think I'm standing here accepting this.

"I really accept this award on behalf of my teammates and the organization because that year we really did a lot for people."

Messier is a Canadian, but his impact on New York once he was sent to the Rangers in a big 1991 trade with the Oilers is hard to deny. Sure he ended the Cup curse with a bold guarantee, but his work off the ice is noteworthy, too.

Messier was heavily involved with a charity that benefited sick children, and befriended police and firefighters as he turned himself into a New Yorker. All the while providing leadership to a team that needed to learn how to win.

That title was Messier's sixth Stanley Cup championship. It turned out to be the only one Richter and Leetch ever won.

Leetch will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame next month, and likely would have received that honor even without winning a championship. Richter, whose career was cut short by concussions, is a U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer but sits on the bubble for the Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Richter starred on the U.S. team that beat Canada in the final round of the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and backstopped the Americans' silver-medal run at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.

He readily acknowledges his career might be viewed much differently if the Rangers had lost to Vancouver in Game 7 of the 1994 Cup finals.

"Sometimes it's sort of fickle and other times there is a reason for it," said Richter, who grew up in Pennsylvania. "The winner won and he deserves the credit for winning. ... Who is Patrick Roy until he wins? And if he doesn't, he's not the same guy you know now.

"There is that necessity of performing and proving that you can. ... It is funny, you can come awfully close and do a lot of pretty darn good things, and I think of players who haven't even had a chance to get into the finals."

Leetch said he often plays the "what if" game, and now reflects on his one championship and not on the failed seasons at the end of his career in New York.

"Right from having my number retired, to the Hall of Fame and all of that, or even lasting as long as I did in New York, you wonder if that doesn't work and you don't get back to that point whether you're traded two years after not winning the Cup," said the defenseman, who played 17 seasons with the Rangers.

"I think about it a lot. I talk to guys that played multiple times in the finals. I got one shot at it, one chance to get to the finals," he added. "I watched Pittsburgh the last two years go back-to-back, and Detroit getting there and guys that have won multiple times, I more and more realize how fortunate I was. I don't think about not making the playoffs, I think about that I made the finals once and we won it and how lucky that is."