In Mario Lemieux's NHL 100 biopic, Penguins announcer Paul Steigerwald said of him, "He had this regal quality about him, he looked like a prince, coming to his new kingdom."
Born in Montreal in 1965, Mario Lemieux was special from the moment he first stepped on the ice. He began playing hockey in his house at just three years old, using wooden spoons as sticks and bottle caps as pucks. He never spoke english growing up in the household of engineer Jean-Guy and stay at home mom Pierrette, but the whole family spoke the language of hockey. They built a rink for him in their yard, and according to legend, they even packed snow onto living room carpets so he could play at night. He was a prodigy, the likes of which only matched by Lindros and Crosby since, and his numbers in the CHL back it up.
As a 14 and 15 year old, Lemieux put up 62 goals and 62 assists in 47 games in his final season of Midget hockey with Montreal-Concordia in the QMAAA, finishing second in points in the league to a guy that turned 17 during that season.
In Canada, hockey players ascend the youth hockey system, and once they reach the end of their midget tenure, the best ones get drafted into the CHL, Canada's gateway to the NHL Draft. The CHL consists of three leagues, the WHL (Western Hockey League), OHL (Ontario Hockey League), and the QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League), also known as the Q. Lemieux was selected with the first pick in the midget draft of 1981 by the Laval Voisins of the QMJHL, and he'd immediately start doing damage.
Looking at the QMJHL rosters from 1981-82, there were multiple players that were 20 years old during that season, and Lemieux would start the season at the age of just 15. The Voisins had another young star, in the person of defenseman J.J. Daigneault, who was actually a week younger than Lemieux. Lemieux, who didn't turn 16 until a few weeks into the season, played in all 64 of Laval's games, scored 30 goals, and dropped in 66 assists whilst sitting just 22 minutes in the Penalty Box. 1981-1982 was the season in which Wayne Gretzky scored 92 goals, and nobody questioned his greatness, but word began to spread of a 16 year old in the Q who might be better than Gretzky.
Mario continued to make a name for himself in the Q as a 16 and 17 year old in 1982-83 for Laval. Lemieux scored a ridiculous 84 goals with 100 assists, which somehow finished third in the Q in points to Pat LaFontaine, a prodigy who scored 1000 NHL points in his career, and Claude Verret, who was 19 years old, and only played in 14 NHL games ever. The Voisins had a ridiculous 5 100 point scorers, mostly thanks to Lemieux opening up the game for them. Laval finished with 53 wins, but lost in the second round of the playoffs.
At this point, Lemieux was the consensus choice for the number one pick in the 1984 NHL Draft, and had hype rivaling that of Gretzky, as he was just 17 and already had a 96 point season, and a 184 point season in the QMJHL.
For 83-84, Lemieux and the Voisins would be joined by another 15 year old prodigy, in Vincent Damphousse, who'd put up 65 points in his first season in the Q. Damphousse would go on to become a star and 1200 point scorer in the NHL.
Michel Mongeau scored 45 goals and had 94 points, Alain Bisson had 82 assists and 113 points, Yves Courteau had 45 goals and 120 points, Francois Sills had 74 assists, 56 goals, and 130 points, and Jacques Goyette had 76 goals and 94 assists for 170 points.
In 2019-20, consensus number 1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere had 35 goals and 77 assists in 52 QMJHL games. Lafreniere is hyped up to be a superstar and future top 10 player in the league. Mario Lemieux's numbers in his final year in the Q, 70 games, 133 goals, 149 assists, 282 points. You can only imagine the hype around him. On hockeydraftcentral.com, there is a list of Mario Lemieux's pre draft awards and honors, I'm going to show you a screenshot of that.
Look at all of those records, it goes without saying, that Lemieux was the most hyped up draft prospect since sliced bread, and the team that would draft him would be super lucky.
The lucky losers of the 1983-84 NHL season were the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that was carried to 38 points by 50 goal scorer and top line center Mike Bullard. The next season, a rookie would overtake Bullard from day 1 on that top line. Obviously that rookie is Mario Lemieux, who they used the first pick on.
The Penguins had always been a bad hockey team to this point, and they had always been on the verge of moving, one man was about to turn a laughingstock into must see TV.
In his first game, on his first shot on goal, Mario Lemieux scored his first NHL goal. He'd score 42 more that year and assist on 57 more to become a 100 point rookie and take home the Calder Trophy on a team that really sucked. The Penguins won just 24 games in 1984-85, but they had hope, Lemieux was the hope. People came to games to see him, and he made it worth the price and more. In his second season, aged just 20, he had 48 goals and 93 assists for 141 points and established himself as the 2nd best player in the NHL, behind only Gretzky.
When I asked an anonymous NHL coach what separated Mario Lemieux from everybody else, he said
He was so skilled, yet he was a physical monster, a skilled big man. He wasn't a power forward per say, but at 6 foot 4, with his skill and skating ability, you couldn't stop him. Normally big guys are stereotypically cast as power forwards and lack the skill, but Lemieux had Gretzky's skill in a power forward's body
Just look at this goal. Mario Lemieux is 6 foot 4, and he's faster than this defenseman. He's going to start gliding while the defenseman is still in a full sprint, and he's going to be directly in front of the defenseman. It's simply impossible to stop 66 from behind, on the breakaway, if you take him down, he can still score, if you don't he'll score, if you do illegally, he gets a penalty shot, he uses his size and speed to position himself for his skill to take over. This is Lemieux's advantage over Gretzky. Gretzky was able to score on a breakaway, he was able to score after build up, he was able to create his own shot, but he couldn't beat a guy with his size. Lemieux positions himself to be able let his size take over and create a triple threat, Gretzky is easier to take down.
If you don't know what I mean, watch this goal. He carries a Nordiques defender from the blue line, to the crease as if he's not even there. Getting a body on him is useless, you can't take him down until it's too late, he's already scored by the time he hits the ice. I don't believe that there is another player in NHL history that can do that.
The sole fact that Lemieux was 6 foot 4 and a physical monster is the reason why you can make the argument that he's better than Gretzky. I do not think that there is anybody more naturally gifted in hockey than Mario Lemieux, and night in, night out, he'd prove why. None more so, than December 31, 1988.
In hockey, there are 3 states of action, Even Strength, Power Play, and Shorthanded. Mario Lemieux scored a goal in each of those states on December 31, 1988... That's quite special, as only 20 times in NHL regular season history has that happened. However, he wasn't done. Lemieux scored 5 goals in 5 different ways, the other two being a penalty shot and into an empty net. He's the only player in NHL history to do that. The moment was voted the greatest moment in NHL history by fans.
In 1987-88, he won the Hart Trophy and Art Ross Trophy, breaking the streaks of Wayne Gretzky. Lemieux was even better in 1988-89. He scored 85 goals and had 114 assists for 199 points, most by a man not named Gretzky, and Lemieux was 23. I have zero clue how Gretzky won the Hart that year. He had 31 fewer goals that Lemieux and the same amount of assists. A highway robbery, just like Ted Williams in 1941,
Lemieux finally made the playoffs with the Penguins in 1988-89, but they lost in the division finals to the Flyers. The next year, in 1989-90, Lemieux, playing hurt, had a point in 46 consecutive games. He had back problems and at times even needed his teammates to lace his skates for him. He was playing some of the best hockey of his career, and he was injured at the time. Immediately after the streak ended, he got back surgery, and a common joke is that "he got back surgery from carrying the team."
Lemieux missed more time in 1990-91, but he came back after missing 50 games playing for a much better team. There was a Czech rookie that the Penguins took with the 5th pick, and he said he'd only leave his home if he could go to the Penguins to play with his idol, Mario Lemieux. His name, Jaromir Jagr. Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy, Ron Francis, and Ulf Samuelsson were also brought in, and it all clicked for them. The Penguins, who 7 years earlier were a laughingstock and on the verge of moving out, won the Stanley Cup. Lemieux had 44 points in the postseason and won the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP.
In just 64 games in 1991-92, Lemieux won his third Art Ross trophy with 131 points. He got injured after being slashed by Adam Graves of the Rangers in the postseason, but returned to lead the Penguins to their second consecutive Cup. He once again led the playoffs in scoring with 34 points, and his 78 combined points in the 1991 and 1992 postseasons is second only to Gretzky's 82 in 1984 and 1985.
You also can't talk about Mario Lemieux (or Jaromir Jagr) without showing one of hockey's most iconic pictures. It speaks for itself.
Mario Lemieux established that he had no rivals in the NHL, he was simply better than everybody, but he'd find a fatal rival in 1992-93, and he'd overcome it.
Mario Lemieux had 39 goals and 104 points through 40 games, he was going to challenge Gretzky's records of 92 goals and 215 points, but then, on January 12th, he announced that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. It wasn't only his career that was threatened, but his life as well, but in a way that only Lemieux could, he got back in just two months. On the day of his final treatment, Mario flew to Philly to face the Flyers, and he picked up 2 points. He got a standing ovation from the rival crowd, and began his return to form. Lemieux, despite missing 2 months, was just 12 points back of Pat LaFontaine for the Art Ross race. The Penguins won 17 games in a row, and Lemieux scored at a ridiculous pace. In just 20 games, Lemieux scored 30 goals and had 26 assists, for 56 points, which is a mind blowing 2.8 points per game. He finished the season with 2.67 points per game and won the scoring title over LaFontaine by 12 points.
Mario underwent another back surgery in the summer of 93, and missed 58 games in 1993-94, and after the season, he announced that he'd take a leave of absence from the NHL. His fatigue from cancer treatments coupled with the surgeries were not a good combo, but he'd be back.
After missing the 1994-95 season, Lemieux returned for 1995-96, and won his third Hart Trophy and 5th Art Ross Trophy. Lemieux was up to 563 goals in just 669 games, if he hadn't missed as much time as he did, who knows how many he could've had. After a 7 game loss to the Panthers, the Penguins went in to the 1996-97 season with hopes of a third Stanley Cup, unfortunately, that wouldn't happen, but Lemieux performed. He put up 50 goals and a league leading 122 points, but then, he shocked the hockey world.
On April 6th, the 31 year old Lemieux announced his intention to retire from hockey after the playoffs. He once again got a standing ovation from the Philadelphia crowd, this time for his final lap. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in November of 1997, as the ninth player to have the three year waiting period removed. Yes, this means that Mario Lemieux became a Hockey Hall of Famer before Wayne Gretzky. He retired with 1494 points in 745 games, the first to ever retire with more than 2 points per game. More importantly, he created a winning culture in Pittsburgh. Before Lemieux, the Penguins had never had a season with more than 89 points, by the time he retired, they had 2 Stanley Cups, three 100 point seasons, and were positioned well for the near future with the superstar Jagr. Pittsburgh was a hockey town, people started to care because of Lemieux, and he's still a massive impact on the city.
The Penguins owners had no money. They spent a lot in the early 90's, and didn't make as much as they thought. They owed $90 million to creditors, and had to ask players to defer salaries. Lemieux was, and this is true, the Penguins largest creditor, and in a weird proposal, he bought the team.
He then announced his return to the NHL in December of 2000, stating that his 4 year old son wanted to his father play. This meant Lemieux would step onto the ice as a team owner, player, and Hall of Famer, but interestingly, not a captain, a position that Jagr remained in for the time being. Lemieux was very good, scoring 76 points in 43 games after 3 years away from the game at the age of 35.
The return is part of Mario Lemieux's lore, and his status as the savior of Pittsburgh hockey wasn't only as a player in the 80's and 90's, but as the man who saved the team from bankruptcy and being forced to move out of a city that cared for them. If the Pens moved in the early 80's, nobody would care, if they moved in the 1999, everybody would care. The Penguins, Steelers, and Pirates make up the identity of the Steel City, and no person means more to it Mario Lemieux.
Lemieux would continue to play and be quite good, putting up 153 points in 127 games from 2002-2006, and retiring from the NHL for a final time in 2006 at age 40. He hung around long enough to nurture the next generation Penguins legends, including goaltender Marc Andre Fleury, as well as somebody who was tapped to be the next Wayne Gretzky.
The game was different in the 2000's than in the 80's, so point totals wouldn't be the same, but seeing a 16 year old put up 135 points in 59 QMJHL games is ridiculous in any era. That was what Sidney Crosby did for the Rimouski Oceanic in 2003-04, and then, as a 17 year old, he scored 168 points in 62 games. He was the most hyped player since Eric Lindros, who himself was the most hyped player since Lemieux. Crosby's game was a lot more similar to Gretzky's than Lemieux's, as Sid was just 5'11, but the best skater, most talented player, and the smartest player on the ice.
Crosby was the consensus number one pick in 2005, but there was no NHL season thanks to the lockout, so all 30 teams would be in a lottery to get the right to select Crosby. The Penguins won the lottery, selected Crosby, and he became one of the greatest players to ever live. Crosby has not, and will not, reach the level of Lemieux, but he won 3 Cups as captain of the Penguins, and currently has 1263 points in 974 NHL games and is still, at age 32, considered one of the best players in the NHL.
Lemieux played with Crosby for a few games in the 2005-06 season, in which 87 scored 102 points as a rookie and finished second in Calder voting only because Alex Ovechkin dropped 52 goals. Ovi's game style is a power forward who may be the greatest goal scorer to ever live, but he's not as skilled as Lemieux was, and neither is Crosby, or McDavid, or anybody. The Penguins also had Evgeni Malkin, who never got to play with Lemieux, but was drafted and signed by Mario and went on to win a Hart Trophy and three Stanley Cups.
Mario Lemieux still owns the Penguins and the hearts of all of the fans in the city of Pittsburgh. I reached out to a Pittsburgh resident and sports fan, who said
Mario is the heart and soul of the Pittsburgh Penguins. What he did as a player was outstanding, and what he's doing as an owner is outstanding. He's just a guy who loves the city and loves the organization and gives it his all every single time. In our eyes, he's the greatest hockey player to ever live
There's nobody like Mario Lemieux, and there never will be. in his NHL 100 biopic, the first line said by the narrator is the line that sums up Mario Lemieux.
No player in NHL history has meant more to a city or its' team than Mario Lemieux has to the Pittsburgh Penguins
Thank you to hockeydb, hockey-reference, hockeydraftcentral, the anonymous NHL coach, the anonymous Pittsburgh native and fan, YouTube, Wikipedia, and more for providing the research for this article.