This story was originally written by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports writer Tom McMillan and was published on May 24, 1988.
BOSTON - In their enchanting little game of hockey one-upsmanship, Wayne Gretzky has thrown the challenge back to Mario Lemieux. And Lemieux likes it.
"I think it's going to be this way for a while," the Penguins center said at yesterday's Stanley Cup luncheon here. "And I think it will be good for both of us as we continue playing. There will always be somebody to push the other guy."
Gretzky, who lost his NHL scoring title to Lemieux this season, has rebounded in the playoffs, steering the Edmonton Oilers to within one win of their fourth Stanley Cup in five years. Leading the best-of-seven final series against Boston, 3-0, they can wrap it up tonight in Game 4 at Boston Garden. Gretzky tops all playoff scorers with 38 points in 17 games - including nine points in the first three games in the finals - and is a logical choice for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
But Lemieux's utter dominance during the regular season was remembered yesterday when he received the NHL's Performer of the Year and Performance of the Year awards, becoming the only player to be doubly honored. Part of the awards is a $12,500 contribution by Dodge to the youth hockey group of Lemieux's choice - the Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League.
"I'm just glad I'm able to help them build hockey in Pittsburgh," said Lemieux, who, counting earlier awards, has contributed $16,000 to local amateur hockey this season.
The performance of the year award, presented for the first time, went to Lemieux for his league-leading 70 goals in 77 games. The award is designed for outstanding team or individual efforts, and Lemieux was also nominated for his record six-point showing at the NHL All-Star Game. Other nominees were Gretzky (breaking Gordie Howe's career assist mark), Edmonton's Grant Fuhr (playing an NHL-record 75 games in goal) and the New Jersey Devils (a 7-0-1 record in their last eight games).
The performer of the year award is determined by cumulative point totals for player of the week and month honors during the season. Lemieux was player of the week three times and player of the month once, in March, when he had 42 points to keep the Penguins' playoff hopes alive until the final weekend.
Other awards presented yesterday went to:
- Bob Bourne of LA - Masterton Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
- Brad McCrimmon of Calgary - Emery Edge Award for the league's best plus-minus mark.
- Patrick Roy and Brian Hayward of Montreal - Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed.
- Bryan Trottier of the New York Islanders - NHL Man of the Year award for charitable contributions in the community.
- Joe Nieuwendyk of Calgary - Ram Tough award for "tough goals," including power-play goals, short-handed goals, game-winning goals and game-tying goals. Lemieux tied Niewendyk for the lead with 42, but Nieuwendyk was declared the winner of the basis of more power-play goal (31 to 22).
Other awards, such as the Hart Trophy for MVP, will be presented June 8 in Toronto. Gretzky remains a finalist for that one, along with Lemieux and Fuhr, but yesterday may have given us a piece of hockey history: The first NHL awards show where Gretzky won nothing.
Moreover, in an NHL film reviewing highlights of the 1987-88 season, Lemieux was credited with "proving he can do anything The Great One [Gretzky] can do."
Publicly, at least, he wasn't flustered; so focused is Gretzky on the Cup that he repeatedly quotes Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics, saying "only championships are important now." His performance, particularly in the finals against the Bruins, has been vintage Gretzky: a few quick strides, a devilish pass, and a goal. And Gretzky has grown stronger as the series wears on, scoring two points in Game 1, three in Game 2, four in Game 3.
He credits this to, of all things, the knee injury that cost him 16 games in January and early February, the one that allowed Lemieux to catch him and pass him in the scoring race. Gretzky had been playing high-intensity hockey since Aug. 3, when he went to training camp with Team Canada for the Canada Cup tournament, and he was close to the burnout stage when Kjell Samuelsson of the Philadelphia Flyers bopped him in late December, forcing some time off.
"I guess I should thank the big guy in Philadelphia for giving Wayne a break," said Glen Sather, the Edmonton coach. "He's fresh as a daisy. He can't get enough ice time now."
This, eventually, will impact on Lemieux, who is expected to break Gretzky's string of eight straight Hart Trophies in Toronto next month. Next season, a refreshed, motivated Gretzky will want to regain his unquestioned status as the game's dominant player.
"I'm not surprised at all at the way he's playing now," Lemieux said. "That's Gretz, He's still the best out there."
NOTES - An Edmonton victory in tonight's 7:35 game would mean Stanley Cup rings for four former Penguins: Craig Simpson, Kevin McClelland, Marty McSorley and Dave Hannan. Hannan has yet to play in the finals… The Oilers have won each of their three previous Cups at home… Game 5, if necessary, will be played Thursday night in Edmonton.