In the three years Messier was gone, neither his Vancouver Canucks team nor the Rangers made the playoffs. Messier vowed that would change - at least for the team he captained to the 1994 Stanley Cup.
"I'll guarantee you we'll make the playoffs," said Messier, who helped the Rangers break a 54-year drought with that title, his sixth. "I don't think anybody will be disappointed in the next two years."
Messier, the fourth-leading scorer in NHL history and first among active players, reportedly will earn $10 million to $11 million, and even more if he meets bonus triggers.
He will have plenty of familiar faces around, none more important than new general manager Glen Sather, who signed him to his first NHL contract with the Edmonton Oilers.
"It's an extremely proud day for me," Sather said. "We've been through a lot together and we'll be through a lot more together. I feel like a second father to Mark."
Messier's departure from New York came amid a rift with then-GM Neil Smith and Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts. With Smith's firing late last season and Sather's arrival, Checketts knew it was right to bring Messier back.
To prove the point, a glass case filled with dirt was brought out with shovels so Checketts and Messier could bury a hatchet before embracing.
The 39-year-old center broke down several times at the podium after he watched a highlight video and accepted the captaincy from Brian Leetch, who reluctantly acquired it when Messier signed with Vancouver after the 1997 season.
"I feel a little bit strange wearing the sweater right now with the captain's 'C' on it," Messier said after raising his arms in triumph. "I think people know what I feel about Brian. For him to turn the captaincy over and for me to accept it from Brian is truly an honor."
Leetch, not often known to quip, got the biggest laugh when asked why he agreed to give it up.
"I was concerned that Mark might become a problem in the locker room if we didn't make that move," Leetch said about a player considered one of the best leaders in sports. "It didn't seem right for him to be in a Rangers jersey without the 'C' on it.
"It would be selfish on my part if I kept it."
Messier, who had 17 goals and 37 assists in 66 games last season, won four Cups in Edmonton with Sather as coach and the fifth there with John Muckler.
In other news:
BRUINS: Coffey signs
Unrestricted free agent Paul Coffey, who holds NHL records for points and assists by a defenseman, signed a two-year contract with the Boston Bruins. Terms were not disclosed.
Coffey, 39, a four-time Stanley Cup winner, is a 20-year NHL veteran. He has worn No. 77 for 13 years, but won't wear it with the Bruins out of respect for former Boston defenseman Raymond Bourque.
Coffey is the NHL's career leader among defensemen in assists, with 1,131, and points, with 1,527. He ranks second overall in league history in assists and eighth overall in points. Coffey had 11 goals and 29 assists in 69 games last season with Carolina.
SABRES: Andreychuk returns
Dave Andreychuk will come back to Buffalo and be reunited with coach Lindy Ruff, his teammate with the Sabres more than a decade ago. Terms of the one-year deal were not disclosed.
Andreychuk, 36, had 20 goals and 16 assists last season with Boston and Colorado.
Andreychuk spent his first 11 seasons with the Sabres after being selected in the first round of the 1982 draft. He ranks third in team history with 348 goals, first in power-play goals (153), second in assists (423) and second in points (771).
RED WINGS: Murphy re-signs
The Detroit Red Wings have re-signed veteran defenseman Larry Murphy, 39, for another year.
Murphy, an unrestricted free agent, appeared in 81 games last season for the Red Wings, recording 10 goals and 30 assists.