Each Western Hockey League team has its premier players who score the big goals and grab the headlines.
While coaches pile on the praise for their top players, they also know their teams couldn’t win games if not for the unsung heroes who block pucks, battle for pucks in the corners and shut down their opponent’s top line.
For the Tri-City Americans, Marcus Messier fills the role quite nicely. He has the bruises to prove it.
“He’s one of those guys at the end of the night when you add up the good things and subtract the bad, he’s always on the plus side,” Americans coach Jim Hiller said. “Sometimes the game happens so quickly, you don’t realize all the good things he does. Marcus has turned himself into a competitor and does the dirty things to help us win.”
In his third year with the Americans, Messier, 19, has come into his own. He played two seasons here with older brother Jordan, who was traded to Moose Jaw at the overage deadline in October.
“It was tough at first,” said Messier, a native of Canmore, Alberta. “I’ve been here with him my whole career. Now, I’m not Little Mess as much. I can be me. When Jordan left, it opened up a forward spot. I got a good opportunity, and I rolled with it.”
As Messier’s time and responsibility on the ice have increased, so has his production.
In 46 games last season, the 5-foot-9, 155-pound Messier had three goals and four assists. This season, he had 11 goals and 11 assists in 62 games.
“He’s a year older, and his role has changed,” said Tri-City general manager Bob Tory, who selected Messier in the second round of the 2009 Western Hockey League bantam draft. “He’s stronger, more mature, and he’s getting more ice time. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in intelligence.”
Messier has skated on a line with Lucas Nickles all season, with the third member of their line rotating depending on injuries that have run rampant through the team this season.
Messier and Nickles use their speed to create opportunities.
“One of my strong points is being able to skate,” Messier said, “but Nicks is unbelievably fast. That pushes the pace, gets their D-men out of the zone and opens things up for us.”
In 70 games this season, Nickles contributed 10 goals and 17 assists. Last season, he had one goal and one assist in 44 games.
While Messier’s offensive contributions have increased, so has his time on the penalty kill. The Americans ranked eighth during the regular season at 82.8 percent.
“Me, Fes (Justin Feser) and (Drydn) Dow are out there all the time,” Messier said. “People don’t really understand. They think it’s hard. It feels good when you don’t let them score. It doesn’t feel good when you take one in the ankle. When you block a lot of shots, you close your eyes and hope it doesn’t hurt too bad. You can’t stay down too long because they aren’t going to blow it dead.”
Feser, the Americans’ captain in his fifth year with the team, said he has seen Messier come into his own over the last couple of years.
“They play different roles,” Feser said of the Messier brothers. “He has elevated his game since Jordan left. He plays his role well. He shuts down top lines and blocks shots. He’s a smart player. He understands the offensive side, but defensively and on the PK is where he really shines.”
The Americans will need Messier’s tenacity when they open the WHL playoffs Friday night at Spokane, as defenseman Mitch Topping and forward Tyson Dallman still are on the injured list.
Tri-City is making its 10th consecutive trip to the WHL playoffs, a mark equaled by only Everett in the Western Conference.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve been gifted with a good team,” Messier said. “We’ve never had any high draft picks. We just work hard as a team. The stretch (of 40 wins or more) over seven years shows what Bob (Tory) has done here. It gives us high expectations every year.”