March 31, 2004 - Sometimes a Buffalo team is merely around for a memorable event, part of the supporting cast rather than supplying the major part of the drama.
Such was the case when Mark Messier said farewell to the loyal fans of the New York Rangers, as the Sabres provided the opposition for his last home game. John Vogl was there for The News in New York:
On an emotion-stirring night that will be replayed for generations, the curtain fell on one of the most unforgettable Broadway shows.
NHL legend Mark Messier likely made his final Madison Square Garden appearance as a New York Ranger on Wednesday night against the Buffalo Sabres, ending an era that featured the Rangers capturing their only Stanley Cup in the past 64 years.
The 43-year-old is in his 25th season and will decide during the offseason whether there will be a 26th. Even if there is, the soon-to-be free agent doesn't appear to be in the plans of the rebuilding Rangers, who will miss the postseason for the seventh consecutive season.
Messier and the fans soaked in the historic event from the start. Whenever he coasted near the boards during the pregame skate, the fans on that side would cheer madly. When he went to the other side, those fans would rise to their feet. Messier even posed for pictures on the ice with team employees while his teammates warmed up.
Signs such as "Bless the Mess, Thanks #11" and "We love you Mark" filled the arena, which exploded when the captain scored late in the first period. But nothing matched the end. The fans stood and chanted for him for the final five minutes, and it continued past the final buzzer. After a salute from his teammates and the Sabres, Messier had the ice to himself. He bowed and waved to each corner of the arena, as tears streamed down his cheeks and from the eyes of onlookers.
"I had goosebumps when I saw the ovation," Sabres forward Daniel Briere said. "The way the fans reacted and the players, it's a special moment in hockey. It might have been his last goal, so that was pretty sweet to be there."
After the game, Messier said, "I guess the great part about it is being able to share it with not only your teammates but the fans. The fans have been nothing but tremendously loyal. That's one of the great things about playing sports, is being able to share it with a lot of people."
--- Budd Bailey