Skip to main content
100 Greatest Players

Marcel Dionne: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Undersized 'offensive genius' fifth-leading goal-scorer in League history

by Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com

It was just another midseason game. It turned into something more, a personal duel between two All-Star centers: the New York Rangers' hulking 33-year-old, Phil Esposito, and the Los Angeles Kings' diminutive 25-year-old, Marcel Dionne - "pint-sized," as the New York Times called him. Dionne scored a goal 43 seconds into the Jan. 9, 1977 game at Madison Square Garden and later set up three more by Butch Goring, Dave Hutchison and Gary Sargent. But when Esposito slammed home a Carol Vadnais pass for his third goal of the game with 50 seconds left in the third period and goalie Gilles Gratton pulled for a sixth attacker, tying the game 4-4, it appeared Dionne's efforts would only get the Kings a point.

As the pumped-up Garden crowd celebrated Esposito's goal, way up in the last row of the Blue Seats, a 20-something guy hugged his father, who remained strangely subdued. The father wasn't really a hockey fan; basketball was his game. But he knew athletic brilliance when he saw it. Pointing to the player, who seemed no taller than the height of the net, the father said, "Watch Dionne. He's going to win it."

 

Video: Marcel Dionne was "offensive genius"

 

Sure enough, shortly after the faceoff, Dionne got the puck from Frank St. Marseille, flew into the Rangers zone, and at the top of the left faceoff circle ripped a shot past Gratton with 30 seconds left, deflating the Garden. The Kings captured two points and Dionne had a hand in all five of their goals.

When Dionne was on his game -- and he was on most nights -- even casual fans noticed he was nearly unstoppable. He was, in the words of one of his Kings coaches, Pat Quinn, "an offensive genius," darting through traffic with startling ease, creating a scoring chance for a teammate here with a pinpoint pass, or for himself there with a strong, accurate shot on net.

And his appealing style -- his distinctive and aggressive choppy skating strides, his on-ice vision and anticipation, his ability to pass either forehand or backhand with phenomenal precision and, perhaps most impressively, his consistency to do all that against a league of bigger players -- dominated play and placed him alongside the greatest ever to play the game.

 

MARCEL DIONNE CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,348 | Goals: 731 | Assists: 1,040 | Points: 1,771

 

This is no exaggeration, as his career statistics show: At one time he was the second-highest scorer in NHL history behind only Gordie Howe, after passing Esposito. Wayne Gretzky caught and passed Dionne in January 1989, but when Dionne finished his career that year, he still ranked third in points and assists and second in goals.

Only five NHL players -- Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jaromir Jagr, Howe and Ron Francis -- have had more points than Dionne's 1,771. Only nine -- those plus Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey, Adam Oates and Steve Yzerman - have had more assists than Dionne's 1,040. Only four - Gretzky, Howe, Jagr and Brett Hull -- scored more goals than Dionne's 731.

He had eight seasons -- including five in a row -- of 100-plus points, seven with the Kings. Only Gretzky (15) and Mario Lemieux (10) surpassed him.

Yet Dionne's was also a career of abundant frustrations. He's most likely the best player to never win the Stanley Cup, and he never came close. For all his brilliance, Dionne nearly always played for non-contending teams. Additionally, he played his best years far from hockey's mainstream, in the relative obscurity of L.A., at a time when hockey's profile there lagged well behind those of other major sports and few in the East could easily follow his exploits.

Consequently, Dionne never received the recognition he deserved. When NHL awards were handed out, he only captured the Lady Byng Trophy and a mere four postseason All-Star selections. His peers, however, twice voted him the League's most outstanding player.

Instead, he was largely misunderstood, unfairly branded as a one-way player who cared more for his point totals than team success. Quinn, who initially believed those rumors until he coached Dionne and saw him buy into a new defensive scheme, called those labels "falsehoods." Quinn told Goal magazine in 1985, "Marcel is very much a team player. He's one of the leaders on this team. He's a very motivated person who has a very high standard of excellence for himself and for the team."

"He's become an all-around star," Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman said during Dionne's prime. "He has to rank right up there with the best small men who ever played the game, such as Henri Richard, Dave Keon and Stan Mikita. He can play for me, for anyone, anytime, anyplace."

Generously listed as 5-foot-9 but likely shorter, Dionne was, as Sports Illustrated described him, a "full-chested, round-bodied" 180 pounds. But his low center of gravity prevented defenders from pushing him off the puck. He had always been smaller than others he played with and against, and learned early how to cope with bigger foes who tried to neutralize him. And make no mistake: Dionne thrived in an era when intimidation tactics flourished in the NHL.

"You have to be fearless," he told author Ted Mahovlich for "Triple Crown: The Marcel Dionne Story." "You put yourself in a position where you know you are going to get nailed. And to survive, you have to find tricks. You have to be quicker, more aggressive and you can't give up. You have to let the opposition know that no matter how many times they hit you, you're still going to be there. Only then will you become less of a target. Eventually, they stop trying to intimidate you because they know it won't work."

He grew up in Drummondville, Quebec, playing shinny and pickup games exclusively until he was 8. His skills became so advanced that when he got into organized hockey, he could play with kids who were as much as four years older. But his informal training hadn't included red and blue lines. Later, he'd laugh while recalling that he repeatedly went offside in his first youth hockey games. A year later, he dominated that league.

Two other outstanding young Quebec-born players developed with Dionne: Gilbert Perreault, who was nearly a year older, and Guy Lafleur, who was Dionne's age. The three dueled regularly in leagues and tournaments from youth hockey through the NHL. Unlike the other two, Dionne elected to play for an Ontario-based junior team, the Ontario Hockey Association's St. Catharines Black Hawks.

Teenage Dionne tore up the OHA. He won two consecutive OHA scoring titles, beating out Perreault, who played for the Montreal Jr. Canadiens, for his first. The next season, he was leading after 22 games with 64 points when Toronto's Glenn Goldup, a future Kings teammate, broke his collarbone with a thunderous check. Dionne missed 16 games and six players passed him. Determined to become the first back-to-back OHA scoring champ, he returned and scored an amazing 31 goals and 50 assists in the remaining 24 games, passing everyone. He finished with 62 goals and 81 assists -- 143 points in just 46 games, setting an OHA record for combined regular-season and playoff points with 497.

In the 1971 NHL Draft, the Canadiens took Lafleur with the first pick and Detroit gladly selected Dionne second. Playing mostly with Nick Libett and Bill Collins, Dionne set an NHL rookie record with 77 points in 1971-72. Red Wings coach Johnny Wilson matched him head-to-head against top centers like Esposito, Keon and Jean Ratelle. "He holds his own, or better," said Wilson, who called the 20-year-old Dionne "our leader." Yet he finished third in Calder Trophy voting behind Ken Dryden (39 wins and a 2.24 goals-against average) and Rick Martin (44 goals).

Dionne did suit up for Canada in the Summit Series against the Soviet Union in 1972. Although he did not get into a game, the 21-year-old Dionne was proud to be Canada's youngest player.

But the Red Wings had lost their way, and he returned from the Summit Series to a dysfunctional team that regularly churned players, coaches and general managers with vague logic and bad results. Detroit never reached the postseason during Dionne's four years there. The Red Wings made him captain as a 23-year-old, something for which Dionne later acknowledged he wasn't well-suited, especially at that age. Some Red Wings fans scapegoated him for Detroit's woes.

"I had to rely on individual effort, which many people associate with selfishness," he told Chris McDonell in the book "The Spirit of the Sport." "They don't understand you have to protect yourself, you have to survive. My heart was with the team but there were too many guys pulling in different directions."

Early in 1974-75, coach Alex Delvecchio moved struggling Danny Grant, whom Detroit had acquired that offseason to score goals, to Dionne's line, and Grant suddenly became a 50-goal man. Dionne scored 47 himself (including 10 shorthanded, a new NHL mark), set franchise records with 74 assists and 121 points and was awarded the Lady Byng Trophy. But when his contract ran out, negotiations on a new deal stalled. The Wings advised his agent to shop Dionne around the league, and he landed the richest contract in NHL history: five years at $300,000 annually from the Kings.

Dionne found his greatest glory in 11-plus seasons with Los Angeles. In 1976-77 he had 122 points, made the First All-Star Team and won his second Lady Byng Trophy. And when coach Bob Berry put Charlie Simmer, who had been a fringe player, together with Dionne and Dave Taylor in January 1979, the high-scoring "Triple Crown Line" was born. "We clicked immediately," Dionne said.

Beginning that season, Dionne enjoyed three consecutive seasons of 130 points or better centering the trio, including 1979-80, when his 137 points (the same number as Gretzky, who had fewer goals) earned him his lone NHL scoring title. In 1980-81, each of the three topped 100 points.

The Kings finally might have been a Cup contender that season, but Simmer, who had already scored 56 goals, broke his leg late in early March. Without him, the Kings were upset in the first round by the Rangers. After 1982, the Kings missed the playoffs three of the next four seasons.

By 1986, the 35-year-old Dionne was the Kings' elder statesman and became a mentor for three rookies -- Luc Robitaille, Jimmy Carson and Steve Duchesne -- who helped revitalize the Kings. But Dionne's days in L.A. were nearly over. While he was encouraged by the Kings youth movement, his own ice time was curtailed and, recognizing they weren't close to winning the Cup, he requested a trade. GM Rogie Vachon worked out a deal with the Rangers, whose GM was Esposito, at the March 1987 trade deadline.

At age 36, Dionne scored 31 goals in his first full Rangers season, but they missed the playoffs. The next season, Esposito recruited Lafleur. Dionne and Lafleur were together at last, although greatly diminished from their primes. Dionne's conditioning had slipped and he wasn't being played. At his request, he went to the Rangers' top minor league affiliate in Denver to regain his form, but the big club never recalled him, and at the end of the season Dionne retired.

The retirement of his Kings No. 16 jersey (1990) and his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame (1992) followed. When the Kings finally won the Stanley Cup in 2012, they pleasantly surprised and honored Dionne by asking him to help carry the Stanley Cup banner at the ceremony at Staples Center, where it was raised to the ceiling.

And when they won again in 2014, the Kings presented him with a Stanley Cup ring in tribute for all he did and all he meant for the franchise. "This is," a happy Marcel Dionne said, "the closing chapter in my hockey life."

 

For more, see all 100 Greatest Players

View More