Wayne Gretzky might be "The Great One," and hold every significant statistical record there is to hold, but the NHL has never seen a physical force as gifted and as dominant as Mario Lemieux. "Le Magnifique" was built like a power forward, but skated elegantly and had pure skills no one in the league could match. Lemieux was a complete nightmare for opposing teams, and had his career not been repeatedly sidetracked by severe injuries and illness, he could have put up statistics that rivaled Gretzky's. Not only was Lemieux a singularly gifted player, but unlike most who excelled on the ice, court or grass, yet struggled in the front office, he rescued the Penguins from relocation and has been even more successful as an owner than he was as a player.
Like so many all-time greats across sports, the stories of Lemieux's obsession with hockey start early. Also, like many hockey players, Lemieux's parents constructed an outdoor rink for he and his older brothers to use for practice. Lemieux took up the game around age three, and according to one (possibly apocryphal) story, his family even packed snow onto their living room rug so that the children could practice indoors after sunset.
Lemieux's career in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League started when he was 16, and he was productive immediately, tallying 96 points, including 30 goals, in 64 games. In his third and final season in juniors, he posted an astonishing 282 points, including 133 goals, in just 70 games, and scored 52 points (29 goals) in 14 playoffs games. Lemieux's points record still stands, and in fact no player has come within 30 points of it. What's more, the 133 goals is also a single-season record, and only three other players have ever topped 100 in a QMJHL season; Guy Lafleur, who did it twice, Pat Lafontaine, and Gary MacGregor.
The 1983 Pittsburgh Penguins were a truly awful hockey team, going 16-58-6 over the course of an 80-game season, and with Lemieux the obvious choice as the top overall pick, there was a race to the bottom of the NHL standings for the right to draft a generational, franchise-changing talent. The Penguins narrowly beat out the New Jersey Devils, finishing with 38 points on the year to New Jersey's 41. The Penguins not only finished 3-13 over their final 16 games, but they also used goalie Vincent Tremblay, seen here in less than textbook position during his time with the Maple Leafs, in four games over a 23-day stretch at the end of the season. Tremblay lost all four games, giving up 24 goals on 141 shots for a truly terrible .830 save percentage. Tremblay never played another NHL game after that season, but one imagines that the Penguins' front office couldn't have been happier with his performance.
It was a foregone conclusion that Lemieux would go number one overall in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft. He and the Penguins had a hard time working out a contract, so in an odd scene, he did not put on a Penguins jersey or shake general manager Eddie Johnston's hand when his name was called. That awkward scene did nothing to dampen Pittsburgh's spirits, however. Consider this; at the time, Penguins games typically drew less than 7,000 fans, and the team was already in some danger of being relocated. When the draft happened, over 3,000 fans watched it live at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena.
Lemieux wasted no time making an emphatic imprint on the league. His first NHL game came against the Bruins in Boston, and it was not even three minutes old when he stole the puck from Ray Bourque at the blue line, raced in against goalie Pete Peeters, made a gorgeous move and scored. It was Lemieux's first shift, his first shot, and his first goal. That it came at the expense of a future Hall of Fame defenseman was a clue as to what was about to be unleashed on the league.
Lemieux's impact on the Penguins and the league was immediate. He notched 43 goals and 100 points in his rookie season, and won the Calder Trophy as the league's Rookie of the Year. He was also the All-Star Game MVP in that rookie season, and the great play continued the following year, when he was second in the league to Wayne Gretzky with 141 points. Interestingly enough, despite Gretzky setting a single-season record with 215 points, Lemieux won the Lester B. Pearson Award (now known as the Ted Lindsay Award) as the league's best player, as voted on by his fellow players.
Still just 21 years old, Lemieux played in the 1987 Canada Cup, a tournament that allowed the best players on the planet to play for their respective countries regardless of professional or amateur status. The tournament's purpose was to crown the true world champion of the sport, and therefore the games were pressure-packed and the quality of hockey unmatched, even in the NHL. Lemieux set a tournament record with 11 goals in 9 games, teaming with Gretzky on the same line. While Gretzky won tournament MVP honors, it was Lemieux who scored the winning goal late in the third period of the decisive third game of the finals against the Soviet Union.
Buoyed by his success at the Canada Cup, Lemieux's game really took off in the 1987-88 season. He won his first MVP, and also broke Gretzky's seven-year stranglehold on the Art Ross Trophy as the league's top scorer. Lemieux finished the season with 168 points, including a league-leading 70 goals, also the first time he topped the NHL in that category. Though the Penguins still didn't make the playoffs, the 1987-88 season marked the first sign that Lemieux was eclipsing Gretzky as the league's best player.
If Lemieux's 1987-88 season was spectacular, his 1988-89 campaign took things to new heights. He led the NHL in goals, with 85, assists, with 114, and points, with 199. The 199 points is the closest any non-Gretzky player has come to cracking the 200-point mark in a single season. What made the feat more impressive was that Lemieux did it without playing in a full season. He posted those gaudy numbers in 76 games, not the full 80. Had he played every game, there is at least an outside chance that he would have been able to put up a few huge performances and perhaps even catch or exceed Gretzky's all-time record of 215 points. Lemieux also became the fourth player to score 50 goals in 50 games, and the Penguins made the playoffs for the first time in seven years. The only hardware he didn't take home was the Hart Trophy, which inexplicably went to Gretzky.
Lemieux's tour-de-force 1988-89 season was filled with great individual games, but no performance was greater than his single-handed destruction of the New Jersey Devils on New Year's Eve, 1988. Lemieux scored five goals in an 8-6 Penguins win, tallying at even strength, on the power play, shorthanded, on a penalty shot, and finally, into an empty net with one second remaining. The Penguins needed just about every one of them, and their captain delivered a performance that will never be exceeded, and likely never equaled. To add insult to injury for New Jersey, they were the team that lost out on the Lemieux sweepstakes years earlier.
Talk to some NHL fans, and they'll tell you that Orr, not Gretzky or Lemieux, is the best hockey player in history. The Boston defenseman paid Lemieux the ultimate compliment when he remarked that Lemieux was, "the most talented player I've ever seen." Interestingly enough, Orr, Gretzky and Lemieux are all in agreement about who the greatest player of all time is; they all say Gordie Howe.
The Penguins' first Stanley Cup Final appearance came in 1991 against the Minnesota North Stars, and Lemieux made an indelible mark on the series with one of the most iconic goals of his career. In the second period of Game 2, Pittsburgh's Phil Bourque collected the puck deep in his own end and quickly shoveled it to Lemieux, who took it in stride, blazed through the neutral zone, went one-on-two against Minnesota defenders, deked them out of their skates, then sent goalie Jon Casey sprawling with a beautiful move to put the Penguins up 3-1 in a game they would eventually win 4-1 to even the series at a game apiece. Truthfully, words don't do the goal justice, so just watch instead.
Lemieux's 1990-91 season was severely hampered by a bad back, specifically a herniated disc that ended up requiring surgery. He only played 26 games in the regular season (yet still managed 45 points), but saved his best for the playoffs. Lemieux piled up 44 points, including 16 goals, in 23 games, taking home the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, and delivering the Penguins their first championship in franchise history. Lemieux's 44 points are the second-highest playoff total in history, trailing only Gretzky's 47 in 1984-85.
Lemieux followed up his Conn Smythe performance in the 1991 playoffs by leading the league with 131 points in 1992, despite only playing in 64 games. In the playoffs, he continued to dominate, piling up 19 points in Pittsburgh's first seven games. However, in Game 2 of their Patrick Division Finals series against the New York Rangers, Lemieux was felled by a slash from the Rangers' Adam Graves, suffering a broken left wrist as a result. Lemieux missed the next five games, but the Penguins rallied to beat the Rangers, overcoming one of the more infamous moments in modern playoff history.
How did Lemieux respond after he returned from Graves' slash? He simply piled up nine goals and 15 points in his next seven games, dominating the Bruins and Blackhawks, as the Penguins went 7-0 upon his return. Particularly memorable was a backbreaking goal to beat the Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final; Lemieux scored with 13 seconds left in the game to break a 4-4 tie, and Chicago never recovered. Lemieux finished with 34 points in just 15 playoff games, winning his second straight Conn Smythe, while the Penguins bagged their second straight Cup.
The hardware and the team's titles prove it well enough on their own, but it's hard to overstate how dominant Lemieux was in the 1991 and 1992 playoffs. His 78 points in those back-to-back playoff runs are the second-highest total in consecutive playoff runs in league history, trailing only Gretzky's 82 in the 1984 and 1985 playoffs. It's worth noting that while Gretzky got his points in 37 games as opposed to 38 for Lemieux, had Lemieux been healthy for the entirety of the 1992 playoffs, he would almost certainly own the record.
What does the league's best player do for an encore after two straight Conn Smythes, two straight Stanley Cups, and an Art Ross Trophy in a year where he only played 64 games? Lemieux decided to take his game to historically scary heights in the 1992-93 season. He was on pace to challenge both Gretzky's single season points and goals records, having posted 39 goals and 104 points in his first 40 games. It looked like he was taking his game to a place no player had ever gone before, when the unthinkable struck.
On January 12, 1993, Lemieux announced that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. He missed nearly two months of play, and had to undergo aggressive radiation treatments that badly sapped his strength, leaving his career and life hanging in the balance.
In a scenario that was as cinematic as real life gets, and bordered on unthinkable, Lemieux returned from his radiation treatments, getting back on the ice the day of his last treatment and playing for the Penguins against the Flyers in Philadelphia. In one of the most astonishing moments in the history of one of the league's most bitter rivalries, fans in Philadelphia gave Lemieux a standing ovation before the game began. Lemieux notched a goal and an assist, the start of a run that saw him put up a jaw-dropping 56 points in 20 games on his way to winning the scoring title with 160 points in just 60 games. What Lemieux's season totals would have been had he stayed healthy all season is one of the great "what if" questions in sports history.
With Lemieux back from cancer, and the Penguins playing their best hockey of the season, the team seemed primed for a three-peat, and after they dispatched the New Jersey Devils in five games, with Lemieux scoring nine points, it seemed they were well on their way. However, the New York Islanders, a heavy underdog, stunned the Penguins in seven games in the second round on an overtime game-winner by David Volek. Pittsburgh's quest for a third straight title ended prematurely, Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, Lemieux's final title as a player was already in his rearview mirror.
Lemieux got goal number 500 as part of his 32nd career hat trick on October 26, 1995 in a game against the New York Islanders. The game was Lemieux's 605th in the NHL, making him the second-fastest player to 500 goals in league history, trailing only, as usual, Gretzky, who accomplished the feat in 575 games. Lemieux's 1995-96 season was very fruitful individually, as he won his fifth Art Ross Trophy and his third Hart Trophy.
On April 6, 1997, Lemieux announced that he planned to retire after the playoffs, despite having yet again won the scoring title with 122 points, including 50 goals. Lemieux's final game came against the Flyers, who eliminated the Penguins in five games. Philadelphia once again rose to the moment for Lemieux, with the Flyers' crowd giving him a standing ovation as he took a post-game skate.
Lemieux became the ninth player ever to have the mandatory three-year waiting period for induction waived, as he went into the Hall on November 17, 1997. That he would receive such an honor was a foregone conclusion; at the time of his retirement, he was the only player in league history to hang up his skates having averaged over two points per game. Lemieux's numbers were astonishing: 1,494 points in just 745 career games, including 613 goals, all while dealing with cancer and chronic back problems so severe that he often had to have other people lace up his skates.
Lemieux's frustration with what he perceived to be hockey's lax officiating, and the way that it aided and abetted less-skilled, rough-and-tumble players was well-chronicled. That frustration was part of the reason that he chose to retire when he was seemingly still at the top of his game. Lemieux went as far as calling the NHL a "garage league" in 1992. He also once confronted referee Kerry Fraser after a 1994 game against Tampa Bay, and bemoaned the constant clutching and grabbing that was always present in the game, but reached its worst-ever level in the mid-1990s.
The Penguins were in dire straits in the mid-1980s, and drafting Lemieux saved the franchise. They were in a similar position in 1998 because of chronic mismanagement throughout the early 1990s. Lemieux was owed over $30 million in deferred salary, and he decided to leverage that into a bid to purchase the team as its majority owner. The bid was approved, making Lemieux the first former player to become majority owner of his former team. Not only did Lemieux take over, he did an excellent job, managing to dramatically improve the team's financial health, keep them in Pittsburgh, and secure a new arena. These days, he and billionaire co-owner Ron Burkle are regarded as among the best owners in the league.
In late 2000, rumors swirled that Lemieux was considering a comeback, one primarily motivated by the fact that his son Austin had never seen him play. The rumors turned out to be true, as Lemieux was training in secret, and made his return to the league on December 27, 2000, against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Lemieux notched an assist 33 seconds into his first shift back, and finished a cross-ice pass from Jaromir Jagr for a goal in a 5-0 Penguins victory. Lemieux went on to tally 76 points in just 43 games, finishing with the highest points per game average in the league that year, and coming in third in Hart Trophy voting. The Penguins made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals that year, thanks to some late heroics by Lemieux in a series against the Buffalo Sabres, before they eventually fell to the New Jersey Devils in five games.
For all of Lemieux's accomplishments, he didn't get to participate in the Olympics until late in his career. He took some time off from the Penguins in the 2001-02 season in order to be more physically ready for the Olympics, and ended up scoring six points in five games, as Canada won gold. Though his play in the NHL that season was nothing special by his standards, the trade-off of being able to secure a gold medal and round out his trophy case was more than worth it.
Lemieux stuck around through the NHL's 2004-05 lockout and played 26 games in the 2005-06 seasons, notching 22 points in those games. Part of the reason was so that he could actively pass the torch to Sidney Crosby, who the Penguins had selected with the number one overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. Crosby and Lemieux combined on a handful of goals in that final season, and the final point of Lemieux's career was a secondary assist on a play in which Crosby got the primary helper. Oh by the way, Lemieux was Crosby's landlord when he joined the Penguins, too.
Lemieux's career ended for good when he announced his retirement on January 24, 2006. His final game was actually December 16, 2005, which saw him notch an assist in a loss against the Buffalo Sabres. As was so often the case throughout his career, a medical condition ultimately forced Lemieux to hang up his skates for good. In this case it was atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that required him to take medication in order to control it. He had tried to continue playing after his diagnosis, but in the end decided to step away for the game for good.
Lemieux's career is in many ways unmatched across all sports. He is universally regarded as one of the greatest hockey players in history, and many feel he is the best, and while his accomplishments on the ice were spectacular, he's had an even better run away from it, as the Penguins have won three Stanley Cups during his time as owner, including back-to-back titles in 2016 and 2017, making them the only team in the salary cap era to accomplish the feat. What's more, his philanthropic efforts and partnerships with a local hospital system have been immensely beneficial, particularly for children battling pediatric cancer, as well as their families. The City of Champions has been home to dozens of all-time great athletes, but even with stiff competition, Lemieux might be the best and most beloved of them all.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.