Today marks the 30th anniversary of the day Mario Lemieux became a Pittsburgh Penguin and changed the course of franchise history forever. On June 9, 1984 the Penguins selected the 18-year-old Montreal, Quebec native first overall at the NHL Draft. This article originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shortly after that fateful day, on June 20, 1984. It was written by Tom McMillan, who currently serves as Penguins VP of communications.
He stood there, finally, with a Penguin on his chest, smiling, saying all the right things, trying very hard to look like a messiah.
Mario Lemieux – teen-age hockey player, No. 1 draft choice, salvation of a sagging franchise – came to town for the first time yesterday to sign a contract and hear the salutations with his own ears. Lemieux, you understand, is an 18-year-old French Canadian; all around him, grown up Americans in three-piece suits talked about rebirth, about this being the most meaningful occurrence in 17 years of turbulence and last place finishes and forechecking the IRS.
“I try not to think about what they said,” Lemieux was low-keying it on the day the Penguins anointed him guardian of their future. “I just want to go out on the ice and do the best I can.”
The belief, as verbalized by front office folks at an Allegheny Club press conference yesterday, is that Lemieux’s best is better than a Penguin ticket-holder has ever witnessed. As a center for the Laval Voisins of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Lemieux scored 133 goals and 282 points in 70 games and packed arenas up and down the St. Lawrence River.
“IT’s perhaps the biggest thing … it is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to the Pittsburgh Penguins organization,” said Paul Martha, the team’s vice president and general counsel. Eddie DeBartolo Jr., whose father signs the paychecks, echoed Martha and spoke boldly of “a turnaround course to greatness.”
But before we bronze Mario Lemieux and fasten him atop the Civic Arena like some Hall-of-Fame hood ornament, these words of caution: The adjustment from Canada’s junior leagues to the National Hockey League can be a severe one. The Penguins, two-time occupants of the NHL outhouse, cannot surround their anticipated Moses with specimens of remotely similar talent. And Dough Wickenheiser, who went No. 1 overall to the Montreal Canadiens with comparable expectations in 1981, bombed mightily and found himself a St. Louis Blue.
“One thing we don’t want to do is put too much pressure on him,” Eddie Johnston, the general manager, was saying moments before his superiors showered Lemieux with the stuff. Johnston, for his part, hopes to place Lemieux with a “respectable” Pittsburgh family, with whom he will live while adjusting to a new country, a new culture. “This way,” he says, “we know Mario will eat right, sleep right. He’ll do it for maybe a year or so.”
And Johnston and first-year Coach Bob Berry have discussed pairing Lemieux, a wondrous passer with veteran right wing Rick Kehoe, a one-time 50-goal scorer. “Rickey can finish plays better than anybody on the club,” Johnston says. “If Mario starts the play and Kehoe finishes them and he gets off to a good start, he’ll get a lot of confidence. That’s important.”
It was less than two weeks ago that Lemieux, at the urging of agent Gus Badali, sheared NHL tradition by refusing to report to the Penguins’ draft table at the Montreal Forum. This was an embarrassment the image-poor NHL had hoped to avoid – the No. 1 choice overall always dresses in his new team’s sweater – but Johnston and Badali had been butting heads over an attendance clause, which Johnston steadfastly refused. “I am not going to their table because the Penguins do not want me badly enough,” Lemieux said in an interview with a Canadian television network.
No matter. Negotiations had reopened the morning of the draft, and within 72 hours Lemieux and Badali had a new proposal: No attendance clause, more guaranteed money. Last Thursday, they chatted over the phone – Badali in Toronto, Johnston vacationing in Florida – and gave simultaneous benedictions to a contract believed to earn Lemieux $700,000 for two years, posed with a Penguin jersey for the cover of The Hockey News. “We just decided it for the good of the negotiations,” he was saying of the draft day no-show. “Right now, it’s all history.”
Johnston exhaled. Martha cartwheeled. And yesterday, this limping franchise gave the city a high-five. Once, before the DeBartolo financial rescue, the Penguins went bankrupt. Twice, since the DeBartolo rescue they finished last in the 21-team NHL.
“This kid can make a big, big difference, and I’m looking forward very much to training camp,” said Denis Herron, the veteran goaltender and three-time Penguin who knows the indignity, the chill of the place. “We’re going” – he paused – “in the right direction. Right now.”