It was a year ago next week that Mario Lemieux changed the NHL landscape with one night's work. Going into the Feb. 9 All-Star Game in St. Louis, the Pittsburgh Penguin center with the pterodactyl reach was clearly the second-brightest star in hockey—Avis to Wayne Gretzky's Hertz. But by the time the game was over, the issue was considerably clouded.
Lemieux, then 22, dominated play as only Gretzky supposedly could. His three assists and three goals in the Wales Conference's 6-5 victory, including the game-winner in sudden death, earned him a truck as the MVP. True, an NHL All-Star Game is not the most rigorous test—the last time a bodycheck was thrown in one. Jack Adams was a coach, not a division. But since his All-Star explosion a year ago, Lemieux has not cooled.
His 41 points in the first 12 games this season amounted to the best start in NHL history. Had Lemieux not sprained his right wrist on Nov. 3 and missed the better part of four games, his lead over Gretzky in the scoring race—137 to 108 points as of Sunday—would be even greater. On New Year's Eve, Lemieux had a hat trick 11 minutes into an 8-6 victory over the New Jersey Devils (he finished with five goals and three assists, his second eight-point performance of the season). Last month he had a hand in 14 straight goals over four games, the streak including a two-goal, five-assist eruption in a 7-4 win over the Oilers in Edmonton on Jan. 21.
"Once he gets behind you, he cannot be legally stopped," says Penguin coach Gene Ubriaco.
February 6, 1989
"You just hope to hold him to a point or two a game," says Flyer general manager Bobby Clarke.
"He's unbelievably good now, and we don't know how good he will be," says Gordie Howe, the NHL's alltime leading scorer.
So, who's Hertz and who's Avis now?
The statistics favor Lemieux. Last season he won the scoring title over Gretzky, 168 points to 149. This year he is on pace to break Gretzky's single-season scoring record of 215 points (1985-86), and he has an outside shot at eclipsing Gretzky's record of 92 goals ('81-82); both records were thought to be unassailable at the time they were set. Lemieux's enormous reach, puck-handling skills ("The best I've ever seen," says Ubriaco), and ability to drive through defenders or, when necessary, carry them on his back, make him the game's most dangerous player in one-on-one situations.
Even one of Gretzky's teammates, Los Angeles goalie Glenn Healy, admits that on a penalty shot he would rather face Gretzky than Lemieux. However, hockey is fundamentally a team game. "Wayne does a better job of using his teammates," says Howe. "Mario is more of an individual talent."
But the regular-season awards also are going Lemieux's way. Last season he wrested from Gretzky the Hart Trophy (for the league's most valuable player, as voted by the hockey writers), a prize that had been Gretzky's for eight straight years. Lemieux also won the Lester Pearson Award (MVP as voted by the players). Gretzky is 28, and if his sun is not past its zenith, it soon will be. Lemieux is 23 and just coming into his prime.
Why, then, are people not rushing to crown him? Part of the reason is that, in Lemieux's four-plus seasons, Pittsburgh has never been to the playoffs. He is not to blame for that—the Penguin club he joined in 1984 was coming off a 16-58-6 season. But you cannot be crowned the NHL's best player until you have done your stuff in April and May, after the six months of exhibition games the NHL tries to pass off as a regular season. While Lemieux and the Pens got reacquainted with their short irons each spring, Gretzky was helping his former team win three Stanley Cups and turning in some of his best work.
But the Penguins have gotten better in each of Lemieux's seasons, except for a slight dip in 1986-87, and last year's 36-35-9 team missed the playoffs only on the last day of the season. This year the extravagantly improved Penguins are battling for the Patrick Division lead with a 28-17-4 record and are a cinch to make the playoffs for the first time since 1982. But unless Lemieux plays Moses and leads his team to the Stanley Cup, it will be difficult to contend that he has supplanted Gretzky as the greatest player in the game today.
Like no one else in sport, Gretzky brings out the best in his teammates. Whether it is because he is such a nice guy that they want to play better for him, or because he has a look in his eye that says "I played my heart out tonight, did you?" his teammates continually crank it up for him.
Exhibit A: this year's Edmonton Oilers. Without Gretzky, the club that won the Stanley Cup in four of the last five seasons, including '87-88, has been leaderless on the power play and is hovering listlessly in third place in its division.
Exhibit B: the Kings. No, their improved play—they're second to Calgary in the Smythe Division, two points ahead of Edmonton—can't all be chalked up to new coach Robbie Ftorek's acumen in juggling his forward lines. As several Kings have said about Gretzky's presence, "It's not like we got one new player, it's like we got 20."
Exhibit C: Lemieux himself. When le Magnifique was named to the Team Canada squad for the 1987 Canada Cup series, he arrived with the reputation of being a potential demigod, but one who took an occasional rest out there. Part of that rap was bogus: At 6'4" and 210 pounds, Lemieux has a powerful yet seemingly effortless stride that often makes it seem as though he is skating at three-quarter speed. But part of it wasn't: When the spirit moved Lemieux. he did take a breather.
After initially resisting such a move, Team Canada coach Mike Keenan put Lemieux on Gretzky's right wing. Together, 99 and 66 (Lemieux began wearing the latter number in junior hockey at the behest of his agents, who no doubt had visions of Gretzky comparisons) electrified the tournament. Gretzky set up nine of Lemieux's tournament-high 11 goals. "He gave me a lot of confidence in myself, and I brought it back to Pittsburgh," says Lemieux.
But Gretzky did more than feed Lemieux the puck. He was Lemieux's drill instructor by example in a six-week tutorial on intensity. "Every shift, Wayne tried to do the impossible," recalls Lemieux. Having been exposed to such a work ethic, Lemieux improved his own. The hockey world has taken notice.
"He's doing a heck of a lot better than he did in his first couple of years," says Howe. "Before he started to work harder, I used to see him play a five-minute hockey game sometimes—and win it in those five minutes."
"Maybe Mario's not all over the ice, but that's because he's smart," says Clarke. "He knows where the puck's going. I think he works his butt off." But Clarke also subscribes to the let's-reserve-judgment-on-Mario school of thought. "Wayne has proved it every year, year after year. Mario has mountains to climb before he approaches Wayne."
The Penguin brass has given Lemieux some decent companions for the ascent. Paul Coffey, the two-time Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's best defenseman, came from Edmonton in a trade early last season. Right wing Rob Brown, a fourth-round draft choice of the Penguins', has 37 goals in this, his second NHL season. And the Penguins got a huge boost last November when general manager Tony Esposito acquired goalie Tom Barrasso in a trade with Buffalo.
Frustrated by the Penguins' four seasons of failure, Lemieux is itching to make a postseason run. He was reticent his first year or two, in part because he was still learning English. He has since opened up, to the point where he has become a leader in the dressing room. Despite his youth, he was named captain in December of last season. Earlier this season, when tough guy Wayne Van Dorp threatened a Pittsburgh reporter, Lemieux intervened on the reporter's behalf, telling Van Dorp the Penguins didn't need such distractions in their locker room.
"He's 23, I'm 27, and a lot of times I find myself looking up to him," says left wing Randy Cunneyworth.
Lemieux is not one of the sports world's dashing figures. He used to have a half-pack-a-day cigarette habit, and he was hooked on video games, too, but in the last two years he has eliminated even those vices. A four-handicap golfer who says he might like to try making it on the pro Tour after his hockey career is over, he spends many of his off days on the links, or at home with Nathalie Asselin, his companion for the past seven years. They kick back, watch some tube and make a nice meal. Lemieux, a budding oenophile, will choose a good wine.
Lemieux and Asselin were introduced by cousins when he was 17 and she was 15. Asselin was a lifeguard at the time. She says it was love at first sight. "After the first minute, I knew," she says. She guesses it was the same for him. "He always jokes when I ask him [if he was smitten immediately], but when we get serious, he says he was."
She moved in with him two years ago. Last December, Lemieux received a $1 million raise to $1.6 million for this season, and they talk with equal enthusiasm about the mansion he is having built in Mount Lebanon, Pa., 10 minutes from the Penguins' practice rink. "It's going to have a Jacuzzi and a wine cellar, so then I can get some really good wines," says Lemieux.
When asked if he and Asselin intend to seek a more permanently binding arrangement, Mario actually blushes. "We're both a little young for that," he says, then adds, "We are coming up on seven years, though." A friend is certain the relationship will end in marriage. "He'd be lost without her," adds a teammate. "She screens his calls, cooks for him, she's his best friend. He'd be lost, believe me."
Even in his native French, Lemieux is not voluble. He follows his short-as-he-can-make-them, declarative-sentence answers with his trademark nod, as if to ask, Any more questions? No? In that case, I'll excuse myself so I can get home and grab a nap.
There is nothing unfriendly about it. He is kind and polite to everyone, from team owner Edward DeBartolo to Smitty and Schultzy, who work Gate 5 on game nights. Lemieux just happens to be better at showing people how he feels than telling them. Two days before Christmas, Pittsburgh played in New Jersey. Afterward, team trainer Skip Thayer and equipment manager Steve Latin planned to ride in an equipment truck to Hartford, site of the Pens' next game. Lemieux found out and hired a limo to take them.
Dave Molinari, the beat writer who covers the Penguins for The Pittsburgh Press, used a passage from Flaubert to precisely sum up Lemieux: "Be regular and orderly in your daily life, so you can be violent and original in your work."
Lemieux's goals with defensemen draped all over him and his blow-your-mind assists are both violent and original, and he has other moves that leave admirers shaking their heads. Cunneyworth recalls seeing him stickhandle his way through the Vancouver Canucks. "They were literally falling at his feet, one after another," he says. "I froze that picture: three guys behind Mario on the ice, in a heap. I'll never forget that. He ended up behind the net and just reached around and stuffed the puck in. I was on the bench with [former Penguin] Mike Blaisdell. We just looked at one another and started laughing."
The backyard rink that Walter Gretzky rigged for his eldest son in the mid-1960s has become part of Canadian hockey lore. Jean-Guy Lemieux, a retired construction worker, has received less credit for packing snow wall-to-wall in the front hallway of his house so his three sons could practice skating indoors. "This is the same carpet we had then," he says proudly.
Outside, children slow down and stare as they pass the house where Mario Lemieux lived. Chez Lemieux is on rue Jogues in Ville Émard, a salty, working-class neighborhood on the southwest outskirts of Montreal. Its houses are mostly redbrick and box-shaped, with tiny front yards and cars parked in the street. Mario offered to build his parents a bigger house in a tonier section of Montreal, but it says something about them that they have never considered leaving.
"This is where all the memories are," says Pierrette Lemieux, gesturing out the kitchen window toward the Église St. Jean de Matha. Behind the church is the rink where her boys, Alain. Richard' and Mario, learned to skate. Alain, 27, played in the NHL for parts of six seasons, including one game with Pittsburgh as a teammate of Mario's, and now plays professionally in Finland. Charles, 24, works in a local brewery.
Was Mario a well-behaved child? "It was as if he had one of these," says Pierrette, indicating a halo over her head. When young Mario's halo slipped, it uncovered a stubborn streak more suited to a pack mule than a cherub. He was, and is, a rotten loser, whether at Monopoly, cards or basement hockey. Tantrums followed losses. "If Mario lost, it would be as if a hurricane went through the basement," says Jean-Guy.
Once, when a babysitter insisted on watching a movie instead of Hockey Night in Canada. Mario, then eight, and his brothers locked her in the bathroom. The brothers Lemieux turned up the volume, the better to drown her out, and sat back to enjoy the game.
Lemieux amassed an unearthly 282 points in 70 games in his last season of junior hockey. Montreal sportscaster Charles-Andre Marchand, who covered Lemieux's team, the Laval Voisins, recalls an exchange between Lemieux and his coach, Jean Begin. After scoring seven points one night. Lemieux was enduring an interview when Begin strode up and thrust the score sheet at him. "Four penalties," snapped Begin. "B‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢te! [Stupid!]"
Lemieux called after his coach and, score sheet in hand, made a great show of slowly counting up his points. "Five...six...seven—seven, that's not bad," he said. Then he handed the sheet back to Begin and walked away.
Lemieux has an obstinate streak. "One thing I hate is people screaming at me," he says. "If you want me to do something, talk to me. When someone screams at me to hurry up, I slow down."
Later that season, in a game against Shawinigan, Lemieux was scoring almost at will, despite an assigned "shadow" who slashed and hooked him constantly. All at once, Lemieux had had enough. He turned, dropped his gloves and decked his tormentor with one punch.
While still willing to scrap, Lemieux is not a good fighter by NHL standards. Two years ago he took on the Washington Capitals' Bob Gould, who had been shadowing him, and Gould coldcocked him. Lemieux now rarely fights, but to survive in the black-and-blue Patrick Division, he has become adept at elbowing rivals, slashing them, kicking their skates out from under them and, on rare occasions, putting them in headlocks.
Lemieux scores many of his goals by harnessing his obstinacy. He uses his NBA-sized body to best advantage against defenders, staving them off with one hand and controlling the puck with the other. Last April, in a game the Penguins needed to win to stay in contention for a playoff berth, Lemieux was skating in on Capitals goalie Clint Malarchuck when Washington defenseman Larry Murphy tackled him from behind. Sliding along on his derriere, Lemieux shortened up on his stick and chopped a shot past Malarchuck that won the game 7-6 in overtime.
The next night the playoff dream ended. The Devils clinched the division's last playoff spot, and for the sixth straight season the Penguins missed the cut.
Howe remembers being at a Penguin game last season. "The score was tied at the end of the game, and there was a face-off in the Penguins' end," he says. "[Former Pittsburgh coach Pierre] Creamer took Lemieux off the ice so someone else could take the face-off. I remember being surprised by that." Lemieux is still not used on the draw as much as some other centers in the league, face-offs being the least of his strengths, and Howe says, "If this is a weakness, then he should stay after practice and work on it. That's what Wayne would do."
That's what Wayne would do.
Much has been made of Lemieux's great timing, his ability to control the puck and keep controlling it, like a python waiting to strike, until the goalie has flopped and it remains only for Lemieux to pick his corner and shoot high. From a more cosmic perspective, Lemieux's timing is lousy: Had he arrived in the NHL in an era other than Gretzky's, he would have had the whole pantheon to himself.
But to measure up in this, the Gretzky Decade, the challenger must fuse his individual statistics to playoff success for his team. Until Lemieux does that, he will remain No. 2.