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NEW YORK – It has taken nearly 20 years for Mark Messier's nephew to get back in action at Madison Square Garden.
Back then, as an infant, he sat in the Stanley Cup when the New York Rangers celebrated their first NHL championship in 54 years. This time, he will skate on the Garden ice with his Harvard teammates against Yale on Saturday night when the longtime rivalry begins a multiyear run in New York — the site of their first meeting more than 100 years ago.
Messier, who captained the Rangers to the title in 1994, is now the chief executive officer of the soon-to-be built Kingsbridge National Ice Center. The final design of the building that will include nine skating rinks is expected to be completed this year, and construction will take place over the next two years. The complex is to open in 2017 on the site of the former Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx.
Messier agreed with Leverage Agency, the owner and operator of the "Rivalry on Ice" game, to be the grand ambassador for several years. A multiyear deal is also in place for one game per season between the teams to be played in New York.
"I just feel with three National Hockey League teams in the metropolitan area, and the lack of ice facilities in this area, I think we can do a better job in that area," Messier told The Associated Press. "That is what we intend to do."
Messier's ties to Harvard and Yale go back a long way. They continue with his nephew, freshman forward Luke Esposito, now playing for Harvard.
Esposito will surely have clearer memories of this trip to the Garden than his last one back in the early 90s.
"I remember he was 1 or 2 years old when we won the Stanley Cup in '94," Messier said. "I have a picture with him sitting inside the Cup. He is a huge Rangers fan, a huge hockey fan. He is the kind of kid that has worked hard to get where he is has been. He has never been given anything. He has paid his dues in order to get where he is."
Messier left the Rangers organization after Alain Vigneault was chosen over him to replace fired New York coach John Tortorella last spring. The Hockey Hall of Famer and six-time Stanley Cup champion with the Edmonton Oilers and the Rangers had spent four years as a special assistant to New York general manager Glen Sather — his former coach with the Oilers when Messier and Wayne Gretzky dominated the NHL.
"I have had a long history of relatives that have played at both Yale and Harvard," Messier said. "My brother played college hockey at Denver University. I was supposed to go on a scholarship to Denver. They recruited me when I was 16 and 17. I have always kind of liked college hockey and what it stood for."
College hockey doesn't capture the attention of the New York sports crowd quite like a college basketball doubleheader at the Garden, but those who have brought in Yale and Harvard hope to change that culture.
The Ivy League rivals played their first hockey game in 1900 at the St. Nicholas Rink in New York before a crowd of 2,000, with patrons dressed in tuxedos. Now they want this game to take place in front of a sellout crowd. Nearly 13,000 tickets were sold as of Thursday, Ben Sturner, the founder and CEO of Leverage Agency said.
"I just think that watching college hockey, with the intensity and the passion that they play with, it's a great product," Messier said.
Yale, coming off its first national championship last year, managed a 2-2 tie at home on Dec. 7 in its first meeting this season with Harvard. This is the first time the teams are facing off in New York in over 40 years.
Harvard is marking the 25th anniversary of its 1989 NCAA hockey championship, in which current coach Ted Donato was voted the title game's outstanding player.
"It is a real powerful crowd and passionate crowd," Sturner said. "In hockey, they are very evenly matched. In football, it's been Harvard winning nine of the last 10 years, but it's different in hockey."
In addition to Messier, Secretary of State John Kerry — a 1966 Yale graduate — will take part in the ceremonial faceoff. Current Rangers forward Dominic Moore — a Harvard alum — and former New York Rangers stars Rod Gilbert and Mike Richter will also take part in festivities.
"The two teams are America's most storied rivals, and people call them the most famous rivals with academics," Sturner said. "We want to make a statement. Coming to New York City, it is between Boston and New Haven. This is where the majority of their alumni work and play, so it's an exciting time."