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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Mario Lemieux: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Super scorer won Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe Trophy twice with Penguins, had 10 seasons of 100 points or more

by Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com

No one has ever had a career like his, a two-decade tapestry of titanic highpoints and frustrating, even devastating, setbacks repeatedly followed by remarkable returns.

Mario Lemieux was the king of the comeback -- and much, much more.

 

Video: Mario Lemieux scored 100 points 10 different times

 

Lemieux did things in hockey no one had ever done, or could even dream of doing.

"He arrives as if from nowhere," Jon Scher wrote in Sports Illustrated, "a towering apparition, looming 6' 7" above the ice in his three-inch-high skates. He shoots with deadly accuracy and passes with precision. His reach is simply superhuman, and he has an uncanny knack for deception. He'll hold his fire till the very last moment and then whip the puck toward the net from the oddest of angles."

The man his teammates called "Ace," who in junior hockey donned jersey No. 66, inverting Wayne Gretzky's 99 and, in doing do, challenged himself to justify the scrutiny, was blessed with size, skill, agility, reach and power. Lemieux truly made the spectacular look spectacularly easy. Bobby Orr, considered to be among the greatest players ever, lauded Lemieux's abilities, telling Sports Illustrated, "What he can do, I couldn't do. He can do more things than any player I've ever seen."

 

MARIO LEMIEUX CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 915 | Goals: 690 | Assists: 1,033 | Points: 1,723

 

Whether he was deking a defenseman or cruising in on a breakaway, Lemieux seemed virtually unstoppable in 1-on-1 situations. Like Maurice "Rocket" Richard before him, Lemieux (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) could score goals with a beaten checker -- or two -- draped on his back, trying to haul him down.

His resume speaks for itself: He won the Stanley Cup twice with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Conn Smythe Trophy twice as playoff MVP, the Art Ross Trophy six times as the NHL's top scorer and the Hart Trophy three times as League MVP. He had 10 100-point seasons.

What might he have done had he been healthier?

Lemieux battled serious injuries and serious illness, often playing with great discomfort. He missed large chunks of some seasons, and even full seasons. He retired for more than three seasons.

Each time, he returned to the Penguins for more glorious achievements. He could never be counted out.

Born Oct. 5, 1965, Lemieux grew up in Montreal and began skating when he was 3. Along with his two older brothers, he played hockey in the neighborhood rink behind the local church, and if the streets and sidewalks froze, he'd skate on them as well. When it was too cold or too dark to play outdoors, the front room of their house became the Lemieux boys' rink, their father, Jean-Guy, having packed snow on the carpeted floor.

He was head and shoulders, figuratively and literally, over the other boys playing juvenile hockey. Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, who watched him as a 13-year-old, called him "the best I ever saw at that age." He shattered scoring records as a junior for Laval in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, including that of his idol, Guy Lafleur, for most points in a season. In 1983-84, Lemieux needed three goals in his final game to tie Lafleur's mark of 130; he got six.

The Penguins had the first pick in the 1984 NHL Draft and never considered drafting anyone else. They were in disarray, having won 16 games the prior year. Their average attendance of less than 7,000 a game led to a fountain of red ink, fan alienation and talk of relocation.

Lemieux changed it all, beginning with his first shift in the NHL, on Oct. 11, 1984. He scored his first goal on his first shot after forcing All-Star defenseman Ray of Bourque of the Boston Bruins into a turnover in the Penguins zone. Lemieux grabbed the puck and -- as he'd so often do -- pulled away for a solo dash that put the Penguins on the scoreboard. A 100-point season earned him the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, but his team was a wreck. Playoff heroics remained a few seasons away.

Meanwhile, playing for Team Canada in the 1987 Canada Cup proved transformative. He practiced and played with Stanley Cup champions -- including linemate Wayne Gretzky -- and learned how to excel at hockey's highest level. Not yet 22, Lemieux had 11 goals -- including the tournament-winner late in the final game -- to lead all players and his 18 points in nine games were topped only by Gretzky's 21. When he rejoined the Penguins, his confidence took off.

Some nights, it appeared Lemieux could score at will, when every shot and pass ended up in the net. His 85 goals, 114 assists and 199 points in 1988-89 -- all career highs -- were at that point the most by anyone not named Gretzky. On New Year's Eve that season, he "scored for the cycle" -- he had five goals, each a different variety: at full strength, on the power play, shorthanded, on a penalty shot and into an empty net -- against the New Jersey Devils. To the best of anyone's knowledge, it's the only time this has been done.

That spring, in his first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Lemieux scored five goals and three assists in Game 5 of the Patrick Division Finals against the Flyers, including a hat trick before the game was seven minutes old. "When I'm going good, everything seems to slow down, and I'm seeing everyone on the ice," he said. "Every time I get the puck, I see the whole ice, who is open, who is not."

Video: 1989 Round 1, Gm5: Mario Lemieux tallies 8pts (5g,3a)

He was certainly going good at the start of 1989-90, with a 46-game point streak. But he did it amidst severe back pain, which ended the streak and finally forced him from the lineup. So debilitated was Lemieux that to get on the ice, he had to grab his pants with his hand so he could lift his leg to get over the boards and on to the ice. "To keep the point streak going through all that pain told me an awful lot about Mario Lemieux," Craig Patrick, the Penguins GM at the time, said on the TV series "Greatest Hockey Legends."

He missed 21 games and returned for the season finale, a game Pittsburgh needed for the playoffs, but his goal and assist weren't enough in a 3-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres.

Back surgery that summer proved dangerously problematic; an infection set in and doctors were concerned Lemieux might not walk again, much less play. He stayed off his feet for three months, finally returning in January 1991, poised for his first stunning comeback.

With 45 points in 26 games down the stretch, he helped lead the Penguins back to the playoffs, where he led all postseason scorers with 44 points in 23 games. In the Cup Final, Lemieux's goal to open the scoring in Game 2 -- perhaps the signature goal of his career -- lifted Pittsburgh fans out of their seats. He split the defense and, at the top of the crease, faked to his right, cut sharply to his left to get around Minnesota North Stars goalie Jon Casey and, while falling, shoveled a backhander over the goal line.

After Game 6, his -- and Pittsburgh's -- first Stanley Cup and his Conn Smythe Trophy caused him to cry tears of joy in the dressing room.

But his back pain persisted and Lemieux missed 16 games the following season. Yet he still won his third scoring title. He also missed six playoff games due to injury -- five from a broken hand after the Adam Graves of the New York Rangers slashed him in the second round -- but he led the League with 16 goals and 34 points in 15 postseason games. His late game-winner in Game 1 of the Final -- one of his five game-winners that spring -- kick-started the sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks for the Penguins' second straight Cup and his second straight Conn Smythe.

Hall of Fame broadcaster Dick Irvin, who began watching the NHL in 1940, later wrote, "In the playoffs of 1991 and 1992, Mario Lemieux raised the individual aspect of the game to a higher level than anyone I've ever seen play."

In many quarters, the 27-year-old Lemieux was now thought to have supplanted Gretzky as the NHL's top player, and he went gunning for Gretzky's 215-point single-season scoring mark. Through 40 games in 1992-93, he'd amassed 39 goals and 104 points when, in January, the sporting world was stunned when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. He'd need weeks of energy-sapping radiation treatments.

On the morning of March 2, after completing his last treatment, he flew to Philadelphia to rejoin the Penguins. That night, Flyers fans -- never known as hospitable to visitors from Pittsburgh -- booed each Penguin as he stepped on the ice -- until they saw No. 66. He got a two-minute standing ovation. Lemieux played the role of entertaining guest with a goal and assist and, although Pittsburgh lost, his return sparked a 17-game winning streak in the season's final weeks and the Penguins captured their first Presidents' Trophy.

Video: Mario Lemieux returns on final day of radiation

As for the scoring race, having fallen 12 points behind Buffalo's Pat LaFontaine while out, Lemieux remarkably ended up winning the Art Ross Trophy by 12 points.

A second back operation in July 1993 limited Lemieux to 22 games the following season. And a bigger problem arose: The effects of the radiation therapy caused anemia and fatigue. He decided to sit out the 1994-95 season and heal. The plan worked. The rejuvenated Lemieux enjoyed two consecutive healthy, highly productive and decorated seasons from 1995-97. He won two scoring titles, was awarded the Hart Trophy in 1996, notched his 600th career goal and made the First All-Star Team each season.

And then, he was done.

Weary after years of battling health issues, the 31-year-old Lemieux announced before the 1997 playoffs that he'd had enough. "Physically and mentally it was too difficult," he said. "I didn't have the stamina I had before. I couldn't do the things I used to be able to do." He'd retire after the season.

His final game was in Philadelphia and again, the often-hostile Flyers fans chanted "Mario! Mario!" as he waved goodbye following the Penguins' elimination. That summer the Hockey Hall of Fame waived the normal waiting period and announced Lemieux would be inducted in the fall. The Penguins hoisted a No. 66 banner to the rafters.

And then, he was back.

Forty-four months after his last game, on December 27, 2000, the Penguins lowered the banner and Lemieux skated onto the ice in Pittsburgh to face the Toronto Maple Leafs. The many reasons for his return included the desire of his 4-year-old son, Austin, to see Dad play. Mario had also moved into Penguins ownership, rescuing the team from bankruptcy and converting his deferred salary into a sizable share of the team.

But, also, he was healthy, only 35 and, well, he was still Mario Lemieux.

"To me, this comeback will be the easiest," Lemieux said. "Because I'm healthy, because I've rested for three years, because I've got a fresh start, physically and mentally." He scored 35 goals and 76 points in 43 games that comeback season, good enough for a Second All-Star Team selection.

Video: Mario Lemieux after 3+ year absence

He'd play all or parts of four more seasons. He'd fulfill an Olympic dream, winning a gold medal with Canada in 2002. He'd mentor Sidney Crosby, who lived in Lemieux's house after being drafted in 2005 and who was briefly his teammate.

Until December of 2005, that is, when Lemieux was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. That, combined with his inability to play at a high level, made him retire for good.

He had saved the Penguins franchise twice. He had led them to the Stanley Cup twice. He had filled arenas and thrilled fans. He had inspired many with his quiet determination in the face of adversity and his will to overcome obstacles.

The sum total recalled the words of his coach, Bowman, after Lemieux had shepherded the Penguins through a tough playoff series against Washington. Bowman smiled and said, "You always feel pretty good when you've got Mario Lemieux on your side."

 

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