MONTREAL – It usually takes a few years for a newly minted NHLer to hit his stride. For Claude Lemieux, his first two seasons in the league were good enough to earn him a place on Team Canada’s roster.
When it comes to hockey, the numbers a player puts up on the ice far outweighs the number of years they’ve been around the league. He may have been one of the youngest skaters invited to the Team Canada tryouts in 1987, but that didn’t stop “Pépé” from carving out a place for himself among hockey’s most seasoned veterans.
|Claude Lemieux (center) couldn’t believe he was playing alongside some of the best players in the world, like Mario Lemieux (second from the left), at such a young age. |
“I really couldn’t believe being as young as I was at the time and getting selected to represent Canada alongside guys like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey,” admitted Lemieux, who had turned 22-years-old only a few weeks before the tournament kicked off.
One of Lemieux’s coaches from the Canadiens may have been a member of the national team’s coaching staff, but there wasn’t much convincing needed by Jean Perron to bring the forward onboard. Even at that young age, Lemieux’s resume spoke for itself.
“Claude Lemieux is a gamer. He’s a big-game player through and through,” expressed Perron, one of Team Canada’s assistant coaches during the 1987 Canada Cup. “Everyone realized that in 1986 after he proved himself as an incredibly important piece in the Canadiens Stanley Cup run. He finished just behind Patrick Roy for the Conn Smythe that year. He never backed down to anybody and on top of it, he was just coming off another very strong performance during Rendez-vous ’87.”
In contrast to some of the other players attending the training camp who may have been overly confident in their place of the team, Lemieux knew he would have to earn his spot with every moment he spent on the ice. He did exactly was what was asked of him at every turn, and always did it to the best of his ability. Used primarily as part of a line whose main objective was to stifle the opposing attack, the right-winger from Buckingham, Quebec made it his mission to do exactly that. With that much star power already stacked on Canada’s roster, Lemieux was content to find his role, and play it well.
“At beginning, it was a little intimidating to be out there surrounded by so many big names. But after a bit of time – especially after the selection process was complete – the veterans really started to make the young guys feel like part of the team,” explained Lemieux, who posted a goal and an assist over the course of the tournament. “It was a very special group that we were part of and that made for an incredible experience.
“There was a natural chemistry among the guys, and we pulled together to create a real team very quickly,” he continued. “All the players that made the team and got to put on that Team Canada jersey were aware of what an honor it was. Everyone was on the same page, everyone respected each other and everyone was moving toward the same goal: winning the Canada Cup.”
Team Canada’s superstars, of which there were many, may have claimed most of the fan attention during the tournament, but the supporting cast of players like Lemieux, Brent Sutter and Rick Tocchet proved indispensable tools to head coach Mike Keenan, and a big part of the reason the team remained unbeaten in the preliminary round.
The Canadian squad stayed hot in the tournament’s semi-finals, keeping their streak alive with a 5-3 win over Czechoslovakia at the Montreal Forum. The victory, however, would be a costly one for Canada. Bringing the physical style of play that earned him his place on the team to ever shift of the tournament, Lemieux’s Canada Cup came to an abrupt end when he injured himself in the semi-final round.
“I unfortunately never got to take part in the big finale because I had torn some ligaments in my ankle the game before. I stayed in Montreal to start my rehab and I had to watch the rest of the tournament at home on TV,” explained Lemieux, unable to make the trip to Hamilton for the final games. “Watching Gretzky and Lemieux together in the finals was something else.
“It was one of the best tournaments that I ever played in my entire career. It’s too bad it’s not around anymore,” concluded the four-time Stanley Cup Champion. “Being Quebecois, having grown up in Quebec and Canada, getting to play for the Canadian team and winning the whole thing is a pretty hard experience to top.”
Hugo Fontaine is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Justin Fragapane.
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