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. And since then Lemieux has twice saved the franchise from extinction, won three Stanley Cups (two as captain, one as owner), won six NHL scoring titles, three league MVP awards and two Conn Smythe trophies as playoff MVP, and overcame back ailments and a bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma to be recognized as the greatest hockey player to ever lace up skates.
Today we celebrate 30 years of Lemieux’s impact on the Penguins and hockey with a look at Lemieux’s eight most memorable career moments (obviously, we couldn’t fit them all due to his expansive list of accomplishments).
1. DRAFTING A LEGEND
The Penguins finished the 1983-84 season with a 16-58-6 record, the worst mark in the NHL. As a result, Pittsburgh received the No. 1-overall selection at the 1984 NHL Draft. The team filed for bankruptcy in 1975 and, with faltering attendance numbers, was struggling to survive. The team eyed a 6-foot-4 prospect from Laval, who scored 133 goals and a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League record 282 points in 70 games, to be their messiah.
Penguins general manager Eddie Johnston was approached by many teams offering him the world for the chance to draft the teenager (rumor has it Minnesota was willing to give Pittsburgh every single one of their draft picks that year in exchange), but he refused them all and made the historic call. Lemieux stood and acknowledged the cheers of his hometown crowd, as the draft was held at the Montreal Forum. Ten days later Lemieux traveled to Pittsburgh for the first time to sign a contract. From that moment on Lemieux adopted Pittsburgh as his new home and the city accepted Lemieux as their own.
2. MAGNIFICENT DEBUT
Lemieux made his NHL debut in dramatic fashion on Oct. 11, 1984 in Boston. He would score his first career goal on his first career shift. Lemieux poked the puck past future Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque in the defensive zone and raced in for a breakaway on goaltender Pete Peeters. Lemieux deked and went backhand for the score.
Most people are aware of Lemieux’s remarkable first game, first shift, first shot, first goal. But earlier on that first shift he also stole a puck behind the Boston net and set up Rick Kehoe with a golden chance in the slot. Oh, and Lemieux won the faceoff too. Just a show of things to come.
3. 5 GOALS, 5 WAYS
Lemieux has many accomplishments in his career that will never be replicated. But the one that stands out the most (other than being the only person to have their name on the Stanley Cup as a player and owner) is scoring five goals, five different ways in one game. On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1988 against the New Jersey Devils, Lemieux tallied at even-strength, shorthanded, power-play, penalty shot and empty net. Lemieux literally scored every conceivable way.
4. THE ICONIC GOAL
Despite his size, Lemieux was blessed with graceful hands and a hockey IQ off the charts. As a result, he’s scored many amazing goals. But the one that stands out the most is his tally against the Minnesota North Stars in the 1991 Stanley Cup Final. Lemieux went end-to-end and deked through two Stars defensemen before embarrassing goalie Jon Casey.
5. STANLEY CUP
When the Penguins drafted Lemieux in 1984, he came with a heavy weight of expectations. But his arrival also inspired hope that the Penguins could reach the Promised Land. That dream became a reality in 1991 after the Penguins knocked off Minnesota to hoist the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. The Penguins faithful waited 24 painful years of losing and uncertainty to finally become champions. It was well worth the wait.
6. HODGKIN’S BATTLE
Lemieux was off to the best start of his career in the 1992-93 season. He racked up 104 points in just 40 games, and was on pace to break Wayne Gretzky’s NHL-record 215 points. Then doctors found a lump. Lemieux was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. He underwent radiation to combat the disease and was out of the lineup for two months. Lemieux received his final radiation treatment on the morning of March 2, 1993. He suited up that evening in Philadelphia against the Flyers – and received a thunderous standing ovation from the usually hostile Flyers fans, who tend to save their worst for their rival Penguins. Lemieux scored a goal and an assist in the game. He put up 56 points in 20 games after his return – winning the NHL’s scoring title despite playing in only 60 games.
7. “FINAL” GOAL
Lemieux shocked everyone when he announced that he would retire at the conclusion of the 1996-97 season at the age of just 31. Lemieux’s health issues – spinal disc hernia, Hodgkin’s, back and hip problems – were the leading factors in his decision. Lemieux scored one of his customary iconic goals in his “final” game in Pittsburgh (before his unretirement). In the waning seconds of Game 4 of the team’s opening-round playoff series against Philadelphia, Lemieux took a pass and entered the offensive zone at full speed for a breakaway. Lemieux snapped the puck home and looked up at the home crowd, who went absolutely crazy, one last time in celebration. The Penguins would lose Game 5 and the series in Philadelphia.
8. THE BOSS
Lemieux rescued the Penguins from extinction on the ice. Little did he know that just a few years after retiring, he would rescue the Penguins for a second time. On October 13, 1998, the Penguins filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the second time in franchise history. The organization’s future was in jeopardy. Lemieux worked behind the scenes to put together an ownership group to buy the team. On June 24, 1999 Lemieux went from franchise icon to franchise owner. The Penguins worked on a new arena deal that resulted in the construction of CONSOL Energy Center and guaranteed the Penguins would remain in Pittsburgh, where they belonged, in perpetuity.
9. THE RETURN
After a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, Lemieux did the unthinkable. He returned to the ice, as a player. Lemieux became the first modern day player/owner in the NHL. He announced his “unretirement” on December 12, 2000. Lemieux made the comeback official on December 27 against Toronto. His retired 66 banner was pulled from the rafters. In the game, Lemieux assisted on Jaromir Jagr’s goal in the opening seconds. Lemieux finished the game with one goal and three points as the Penguins won 5-0.
10. CANADA CUP
Lemieux has scored many big goals for the Penguins franchise. But perhaps his biggest career goal came for an entire country. Lemieux posted 11 goals and 18 points in nine games during the 1987 Canada Cup to help Canada win the gold medal. In the final game of the tournament Canada and the Soviet Union were tied at 5-5 with 1:30 remaining in the third period. Lemieux forced the play up ice and got the puck to Gretzky. The “Great One” dropped a pass back to Lemieux in the slot. Lemieux buried the puck to lift Canada to gold.
What are your favorite Mario memories?