The six-time Stanley Cup winner and perennial all-star broke down as he spoke of the national pride he felt as a young boy watching fellow Order of Hockey in Canada recipient Paul Henderson score the goal that sealed Canada's hockey supremacy over the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series.
"As an 11-year-old boy who was playing hockey, to get that kind of opportunity to feel what real national pride is all about through the game of hockey, obviously inspired me, not only as a hockey player, but to one day wear that sweater," Messier said.
He had to pause for a moment to collect himself. "I almost got through it," he joked.
Messier, arguably the greatest leader the sport has ever seen, had to pause again as he recalled his pep talk to the Canadian players he coached at the 2010 Spengler Cup in Switzerland, in which he described the pride and sense of responsibility that comes with wearing the Maple Leaf.
"I didn't cry when I was telling this story in the dressing room," Messier said.
Messier wasn't the only one to shed tears during Monday's two-hour ceremony on Parliament Hill. Coaching legend Dave King, the third recipient of the Hockey Canada honour, welled up as he spoke of fellow coach Wayne Fleming, who died recently of cancer.
"Sorry for the emotion, but these are great people," King said. "For a coach who never got very emotional, here I am, emotional."
Amid the tears there was also good news as former Team Canada star Henderson shared a positive development in his battle with cancer.
The 69-year-old native of Kincardine, Ont., has been diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He told the audience that treatment he received as part of a clinical trial in the United States appears to have had a positive effect on his health.
Henderson thanked his wife, Eleanor, for getting him into a clinic trial.
"I got into that study back in September. I was down 18 pounds. I had a tumour in my stomach the size of a grapefruit, and I was not in very good shape," Henderson said.
"After seven months of this clinical trial that she was instrumental in getting me into, the tumour in my stomach is now the size of the end of my finger, and I've put 16 of those pounds back on and I am doing well."
Messier, Henderson and King join a select group of players and builders who have been awarded the Hockey Canada honour, including Jean Beliveau, Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Cassie Campbell-Pascall and Gord Renwick.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who attended the ceremony, paid tribute to the three men.
"These three men are not only ambassadors for our sport, they are ambassadors for Canada and for Canadian values," Harper said.
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