NEW YORK (AP) _ Three long years had passed since Mark Messier last donned a New York Rangers' sweater. When he pulled one on again, the memories of the good times overwhelmed him.

``I knew what it meant to be a Ranger before and how tough it was leaving,'' said a tearful Messier, who signed a two-year deal with the Rangers on Thursday to return and be their captain, as he was from 1991-97. ``To be able to come back is exciting for me and my family. I'm proud to be a Ranger.''

In the three years Messier was gone, neither his Vancouver Canucks team nor the Rangers have been to 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-$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.

Sather, who resigned as Oilers' GM to take the same position with New York last month, knew he wanted Messier, with whom he won five Stanley Cups in Edmonton as coach and GM.

``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, the league MVP in 1990 and 1992, became an unrestricted free agent when the Canucks exercised a $2 million buyout for the final two years of his five-year contract instead of being on the hook for $6 million a season.

The announcement came just one day after Ron Low was hired as the Rangers' coach.

The 39-year-old center broke down several times at the podium Thursday 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'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. Checketts decided during the Wayne Gretzky retirement game, at the end of the 1999 season, that he wanted Messier back.

``We all make mistakes,'' Checketts said. ``But the past is the past and today is a day of moving on. Mark Messier has become synonymous with New York like few other modern-day athletes in any other city.''

The return will certainly ease the burden on Leetch, Adam Graves and Mike Richter _ the remaining holdovers from 1994.

``I'm glad these three years are over and he's back,'' Leetch said.

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 Low's New York predecessor, John Muckler. Messier first came to New York just one game into the 1991-92 season when Sather, shackled by the Oilers' financial troubles, traded him.

In 21 NHL seasons, Messier _ who missed 15 games last season with a knee injury _ has 627 goals and 1,087 assists. He had 183 goals and 335 assists in 421 games with the Rangers.

``I'm not coming here resting on my laurels,'' Messier said. ``I didn't come here resting on the five Cups I won in Edmonton. I'd like to recreate some magic but it's more than that. It's a lot of blood, sweat and tears.''