In 1973, Sal Messina became the color analyst on Rangers radio broadcasts working with play-by-play man Marv Albert. It was the natural progression for the Queens native who had been involved in hockey and the Blueshirts for most of his life.
Sal grew up listening to Bert Lee call Ranger games on radio. “Bert Lee got me hooked on hockey” Sal told author David Halberstam for the book ‘Sports on New York Radio’.
“In our neighborhood in Astoria, kids grew up baseball and basketball fans. I would roller skate, it was hard to get ice time. Lee was theater. I envisioned the NHL by listening to his broadcasts. He really started me on hockey. “
Young Sal became a goaltender playing for Metropolitan League teams throughout the New York area and also with the Long Island Ducks in the Eastern Hockey League. He also had brief stints with the New York Rovers and Philadelphia Ramblers.
Sal Messina: “We had a pretty decent senior league over in New Jersey and at the time the Rovers had a team and everyone on that team was from Canada. So near the end of the season someone got hurt and they needed a goalie and Stan Fischler had written a couple of articles about me so they called me up and I played a few games, a couple of good ones. The Rangers automatically put me on their list and Muzz Patrick signed me to a C-Form.
I went to two training camps with the Rangers. See the first training camp I went to was right after they traded Gump (Worsley) to Montreal in 1963. The team was good, Red Sullivan was a great guy. The thing is that they didn’t have first dibs on Canadian players, except the guys they signed early and sent to Guelph. They got lucky with those guys. I played in training camp games, I played for the Rangers and against the Rangers. In fact Leo Reise scored a goal against me. I’ll never forget that. That was good bunch of guys, very close knit. But they just didn’t have the overall talent that the Red Wings or Leafs or Canadiens had. But it was a great bunch of guys,”
Back then teams were only required to carry one netminder, so Sal was able to stick around with the Rangers as a practice goaltender. He also had to be ready to play in case their regular goaltender got hurt and couldn’t continue.
Sal Messina: “For a year and a half I was traveling with the Rangers. I would sit in the stands even on the road. I would sit in the stands with Muzz or Emile and they would announce your name as wearing number 23. They used to have house goalies at that time but by Muzz having me travel with the team I would have gone in instead of the other team’s house goalie if our guy got hurt.
I almost got into a game once. Jacques Plante was hurt or sick. We had taken the train up to Montreal, and that morning we got off the train and Jacques told me that he didn’t feel very well. He hadn’t beaten the Canadiens all year and the Rangers weren’t going to make the playoffs. When we got to the rink I skated with the guys who weren’t playing. But when I got to the rink that night they had my equipment out and all the guys were giving me the needle. But Jacques came into the dressing room and they made him play. I think they threatened to fine him and so he played and I think they won the game 3-1. That was the closest I ever got to getting into a game except for training camp.”
Sal was with the team in Toronto on February 22, 1963 when the Blueshirts made a blockbuster deal, sending Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney to the Leafs for Bob Nevin, Dick Duff, Arnie Brown, Bill Collins and Rod Seiling.
Sal Messina: “I was traveling with the team at the time and we were in the hotel room in Toronto. There was a lot of noise out in the hall and we go out and they’re saying ‘Andy got traded, Andy got traded’. It was shocking, And they just switched rooms. The two dressing rooms are literally 15 feet apart. But it was good for Andy he won a Cup. Players were treated differently then. They weren’t making a lot of money and a lot of them worked over the summer. The minimum was $7,000 so that was $100 per game. I remember Larry Cahan, got traded out to Oakland, and came back to the Garden for a game. I was working in the penalty box and he was bragging about his $10,000 a year contract.”
In addition to his role with the Rangers, Sal also continued to play amateur hockey on teams in New Jersey.
Sal Messina: “We had a bunch of ex-college players who didn’t even get a look in those days because everybody was Canadian, the American weren’t even looked at and there were only six teams. I think the first player from Europe to see any action was Ulf Sterner. He was in one of the training camps that I was at. He was good but he was a Swedish kid and he was a little different. It was a grinding game and he wasn’t used to that. It was different then. They were good players but the league was really tight. There were only six teams and I think they only dressed 16 or 17 players and a goalie.”
One of the highlights of Sal’s career was traveling to Russia with a team comprised of EHL players.
Sal Messina: “One year the Eastern Hockey League was sending a team to Russia. That was the highlight of my career. Wearing the USA jersey in Russia and Czechoslovakia was a thrill. We played in Prague but we didn’t do very well because the Russians were better than anybody thought they were.”
When his playing career ended, Sal became an off-ice official at the Garden, serving as a goal judge, official scorer and penalty time keeper. Then one night he bumped into Bill Chadwick who had just been moved up to the television booth.
Sal Messina: “In 1972 Bill Chadwick was the radio announcer and I was a minor official. The Rangers would have two pre-season games in the Garden before the season started. Bill was moved to television. So I saw Bill before one of the games and congratulated him and asked him who would be doing radio, not even thinking about me doing it. So he said ‘well why don’t you give it a try?’ I said me? He said ‘Call Marv Albert’. So I went in the penalty box that night and I thought, well I can talk about hockey, that’s not hard. I’d been involved in it all my life practically. So I called Marv and he said come on in. So I go in and he said okay we’re gonna talk about a couple of plays. And that went alright. But then he says ‘interview me, I’m Gilles Villemure’, and I’d never interviewed anybody in my life and I didn’t do a good job. They had already hired Gene Stuart, he was the play-by-play guy for the Rangers New Haven team at the time. So they used him that season. But I knew a lot of people from my days as a player: Red Sullivan, Jacques Plante, Freddie Shero. I knew a lot of people on other teams. So Marv said that I should ask questions. So before each game I’d interview Freddie Shero, they’d come into the Garden five or six times a year. I’d interview all kinds of people. Then I’d submit these tapes to Marv and he’d critique them. And so they gave me the job the next year. .
Funny story about Freddie Shero, every time he came in I’d meet him in the press room and we’d talk for 15-20 minutes. So now it’s the first year he’s coaching the Rangers, So before the opening game I went up to Freddie and said, Let’s do an interview. He said, ‘You know I don’t do interviews.”
Of course down deep Sal was a Ranger fan but on the air he was as quick to praise an opponent as he was to point out a Ranger mistake. He told the fans exactly what was happening on the ice and didn’t pull any punches. Even Marv Albert who often made Sal the butt of his disparaging sense of humor called him ‘vastly underrated and one of hockey’s most incisive color commentators’. But it was Albert who gave Sal the nickname “Red Light”.
Sal Messina: “We were out in Oakland one time, the Rangers had played in Toronto and from there they were going to Oakland. Dunc Wilson was in goal and the fans were calling him “Red Light”. After the game Hugh Delano put that in the Post. Now every goalie was called “Red Light” at one time or another, even back when we played with chicken wire instead of glass. So Dunc says to Delano, ‘you shouldn’t put that in the papers, my wife will think I’m fooling around.’ So then Delano finds out about the other meaning of “Red Light” and we had a big laugh. So he tells that story to Marv, in Oakland while we were having lunch. That night we go on the air and he says, this is Marv Albert with Sal ‘Red Light’ Messina. And from that day on whenever we went on the air that’s what he called me. Nobody else called me that, not Kenny Albert, or Sam Rosen. Just Marv. But it stuck.”
During the course of Sal’s nearly 30 years behind the mike, Rangers broadcasts moved up and down the radio dial and he worked with 18 different play-by-play announcers including Albert’s brothers Steve and Al as well as his son Kenny. But the one constant that held the broadcasts together was Messina. Sal was also often called upon to provide play-by-play on occasions when Albert arrived at the Garden late from his duties as radio voice of the New York Giants.
Few fans realized that in addition to broadcasting Ranger games, Sal also had a full time job as Vice President of Sales for a Port Washington-based manufacturer of aircraft parts. Many times Sal would arrive home from a Ranger road trip at 3 am and be at his desk the next morning at 7:30. In fact in 1987 when the Rangers became the last team in the NHL to broadcast their entire schedule, Sal had to use some of his vacation time in order to work the additional Ranger games.
But by 2002 with two years left on his contract, Sal knew it was time to retire.
Sal Messina: “Even though I retired with a couple of years left on my contract, I had enough after 30 years. I was selling aircraft parts so I traveled for them for a lot of years. I was doing both, working for the Rangers and was VP of Sales for W.S. Wilson on Long Island. So every September I had to go to Europe for two weeks right before training camp. When we’d go to Montreal I’d visit Air Canada. So I’d mix it in. But after 30 years of doing both, it was time. I was tired. But I still have the Dish and I watch every game. “
In 2005 Sal was awarded the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for his outstanding work as an NHL broadcaster. He lists that award as well as the Rangers 1994 Stanley Cup victory as the highlights of his broadcasting career.
Sal Messina: “When they won the Cup and of course getting into the Hall of Fame, were the highlights. That whole series, going out to Vancouver, Rangers were up 3-1 and then coming back to the Garden and getting blown out in game 5, going back out to Vancouver and winning the Cup at home. It was a great time.”
Part of Sal’s charm was that he never took himself too seriously. New Yorkers could identify with him as a local guy who made good. Sal made the job of color analyst seem easy but behind his success was a lot experience, perseverance and hard work.
He may not have been good enough to make it to the NHL as a player, but as a broadcaster Sal Messina made it all the way to the Hall of Fame. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.