Welcome to NHL99, The Athletic’s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re rating 100 gamers however calling it 99 as a result of everyone knows who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we have now to determine. Every Monday by means of Saturday till February we’ll unveil new members of the record.
First shift, first shot, first purpose. Five objectives, 5 methods. A 46-game scoring streak. Returning in-season from again surgical procedure to win the Stanley Cup. Beating most cancers and successful the scoring title and MVP in the identical season. Scoring 35 objectives and 76 factors in 43 video games after retiring for three-plus seasons. Buying out of chapter the group that drafted him.
“He’s No. 2, huh?” mentioned Scotty Bowman, the NHL’s winningest coach, of Mario Lemieux, the second-ranked participant on The Athletic’s record of the best gamers of the trendy period of the NHL.
“You might have him too low. Mario’s the best player that ever lived.”
For although Lemieux, who performed his total profession for the Pittsburgh Penguins, successful the Stanley Cup twice as a participant and three extra instances as a majority co-owner, may not personal the NHL document books as did Wayne Gretzky, a case may be made that no participant was extra bodily dominant than “Super Mario.”
“I never liked comparing them; it was those two and everybody else,” mentioned Paul Coffey, a defenseman who starred with Gretzky’s Oilers and Lemieux’s Penguins within the Eighties and Nineties. “I’ll say this, though: You saw Mario do things that nobody else could do.”
Added Kevin Stevens, who performed with Gretzky after starting his profession with Lemieux in Pittsburgh: “Mario was like an alien. The things he could do — even when he wasn’t close to 100 percent healthy — are hard to believe to this day. And I was there when he did some of them.”
“I don’t think anybody has meant more to one franchise than Mario did in Pittsburgh,” mentioned Randy Hillier, a longtime NHL defenseman who performed with Lemieux. “That team exists because of Mario. He saved them when he was drafted. He bought them when they could have moved.
“There are a lot of great players. I’d put him up there with any of the best. But if you’re talking about what one person means to an organization, a city — there’s only Mario. He’s a hero in Pittsburgh, and rightfully so.”
Before he turned a hero in Pittsburgh, Lemieux was a prodigious expertise who straightened the scouting world’s axis within the early Eighties. Before there was Eric Lindros, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Connor Bedard, there was Lemieux, a big-but-smooth prospect, doing the unbelievable every day within the QMJHL.
In his mid-teens, Lemieux debuted with the Laval Voisins for his or her 1981-82 season. He produced 30 objectives and 96 factors in 64 video games.
“He was playing against guys two or in some cases almost three years older,” mentioned Eddie Johnston, the previous coach and GM of the Penguins who drafted Lemieux in 1984.
“I lived 20 minutes from him. I went to see him that first season with Laval, and I knew then he was going to be special because he was the youngest guy out there and also the biggest, strongest and most skilled. I remember telling people, ‘Wait until he catches up to their age, he’s going to do things nobody’s ever done.”
Johnston proved prophetic. Lemieux propelled his option to 84 objectives and 184 factors in 66 video games throughout his second season with Laval. By then, he was already on the NHL’s radar because the doubtless high prospect for the 1984 draft.
“I was scouting for the Canadiens and a friend of mine told me to go check out one of his games,” Bowman mentioned. “I think he only had five points that game, but other players were hanging all over him. He was already getting beat up because you couldn’t stop him otherwise.
“He could have been one of the NHL’s best players when he was 17. Making him wait another year almost seemed unfair to everybody else in junior hockey.”
Bob Errey, a longtime teammate of Lemieux who was drafted by the Penguins at No. 15 in 1983, didn’t see a lot of his future NHL captain throughout Lemieux’s junior days. He remembers “hearing the stories of this guy putting up unbelievable numbers every night.”
“He had another year to go by the time I was drafted to Pittsburgh, even by then you already heard people comparing him to Gretzky,” Errey mentioned. “You have to understand that Gretzky was putting up 200 points in the NHL at the time, so for everybody to agree this kid might be as good as Gretzky — that was unthinkable.”
Lemieux modified his quantity to 66 — Gretzky’s iconic 99 solely the other way up — on the recommendation of an agent. But nothing about Lemieux required intelligent advertising and marketing. His sport spoke for itself. Lemieux roasted the QMJHL in his remaining season. He racked up 133 objectives and 282 factors in solely 70 video games.
“The numbers didn’t sound real,” mentioned Mike Lange, longtime voice of the Penguins. “I went to see him play once when he was with Laval. It was like he was playing a completely different sport.
“It’s one thing to be so dominant. What jumped out to me was the artistry. He didn’t just score goals; he scored the prettiest goals you’d ever seen. He didn’t just make passes; they were perfect passes that half the time his teammates weren’t ready for because they didn’t see the game like he could. I just remember leaving that game — and, again, I only saw him in junior that one time — thinking, ‘Oh, what a gift it would be if we got him.’”
The Penguins and New Jersey Devils had been locked in a good race for the NHL’s worst document throughout the 1983-84 season. The prize was definitely worth the ache, and Johnston wasn’t above some intelligent maneuvering to offer Pittsburgh the sting within the Lemieux sweepstakes.
Before a sport late that season, Johnston despatched the Penguins’ finest goalie to the minors late on a Friday afternoon. The Penguins performed the Devils that weekend, and Johnston filed the paperwork for the roster transfer after regular enterprise hours on the NHL workplaces.
Johnston nonetheless claims the timing of that transfer was coincidental, however the Penguins misplaced to the Devils that weekend. From that time ahead, there was no wanting again for Johnston. He was receiving unfathomable provides for the Penguins’ first general choose earlier than the season ended. He refused to inform Penguins possession about a number of the potential offers as a result of he didn’t wish to tempt destiny.
“I wasn’t trading that pick,” Johnston mentioned. “I told our owner he would have to fire me first.”
The Quebec Nordiques provided every of the Statsny brothers and their first-round choose for the precise to draft Lemieux. The Winnipeg Jets offered to Johnston each choose they owned within the 1984 draft. The Montreal Canadiens assured they might “match and do better” than another membership.
“There was a lot of pressure because some people thought we should trade the pick and stock up,” Johnston mentioned. “We hadn’t been to the playoffs in a long time. The building was half-filled. A lot of people thought we didn’t have much time left in Pittsburgh, that the team would move if things didn’t turn around fast — and, basically, I could have had anything I wanted if I was willing to give up that pick.”
Johnston held agency.
Several months later, 17 seconds into his first NHL sport on the Boston Gardens, Lemieux scored his first NHL purpose. About a minute later, Johnston was tapped on the shoulder by the Bruins’ Harry Sinden.
“When Mario scored, I turned around and Harry was right there. He said, ‘No wonder you didn’t trade that (expletive) pick.”
Halfway by means of his rookie NHL season, Lemieux had elevated the Penguins to must-see standing in Pittsburgh. Attendance elevated to the purpose that Saturday evening residence video games had been sellouts. Local tv stations started discussing broadcasting offers for future seasons. Pittsburgh residents, historically smitten with the NFL’s Steelers, began sporting No. 66 Penguins jerseys.
The Penguins nonetheless weren’t excellent, and wouldn’t be for some time. Lemieux, nonetheless, was an on the spot celebrity, drawing consideration wherever he went. He additionally completed that rookie season with 43 objectives and 100 factors — ok for the Calder Trophy, the primary of many NHL awards to come back.
“Our owner, Mr. (Edward) DeBartolo, came into my office near the end of that first season and gave me a big hug,” Johnston mentioned. “He said, ‘You holding onto that pick was the best thing that ever happened to this team.’”
The Penguins missed the playoffs in Lemieux’s first season. It can be the late Eighties earlier than Lemieux lastly tasted postseason hockey on the highest stage. By then, he had already received certainly one of his three Hart Trophies, two of his six Art Ross Trophies, and turned the All-Star Game into his private showcase.
Coffey, who was traded to the Penguins early within the 1987-88 season, mentioned it was Lemieux’s Canada Cup breakout that signaled his time as hockey’s finest participant was coming.
“It was his first time he was surrounded by other great players,” Coffey mentioned of the Canadian roster, which featured himself, Gretzky, Lemieux and a who’s who of Eighties stars. “I think he and Wayne pushed each other, but everyone on the team realized by the end of that tournament Mario had arrived. I don’t know how many goals he had. They all felt like big ones.”
Gretzky-to-Lemieux, the tournament-winning purpose is among the most well-known objectives in hockey historical past. Gretzky completed the Canada Cap with a tournament-best 21 factors. Lemieux’s 18 had been second, however he paced all gamers with 11 objectives in 9 video games.
Lemieux adopted his Canada Cup efforts with a 70-goal, 168-point 1987-88 season, for which he earned his first Hart Trophy. The subsequent season, Lemieux once more led the NHL with 85 objectives and 199 factors and received his first style of Stanley Cup playoff hockey. He didn’t disappoint, scoring 12 objectives and 19 factors in 11 video games, however the Penguins fell a win wanting the convention remaining.
“He was the best player in the world by the end of that season,” Hillier mentioned. “And he stayed that way until he retired.”
The Nineties appeared destined to be Lemieux’s decade. In numerous methods, it was.
Throughout the last decade no participant, together with Gretzky, received a scoring title throughout a season during which Lemieux performed at the very least 60 video games. That occurred solely 4 instances and he retired after the 1996-97 season at 31.
Lemieux spent a lot of his profession being outlined by what he would overcome as a lot as what he achieved.
He famously was recognized with Hodgkin’s illness, now referred to as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, throughout the 1992-93 season. By then, his Penguins had been two-time defending Stanley Cup champions and Lemieux, on the time of his prognosis, was on tempo to shatter Gretzky’s single-season level document.
On the day of his remaining remedy for Hodgkin’s, Lemieux flew to Philadelphia to play for the Penguins towards the Flyers. That sport launched in all probability his most memorable run — one which included him rallying to win the scoring title with 160 factors in solely 60 video games, main the Penguins on a still-record 17-game successful streak, and a few moments that Lange by no means thought had been doable.
“I’ll tell you what I never thought I’d live to see: One of our players getting cheered in Philadelphia or New York,” Lange mentioned. “But that first game back in Philadelphia, Mario was given a standing ovation — in the Spectrum of all places. And later on, he had a game at the end of season at Madison Square (Garden) when he scored five goals, and the Rangers fans cheered him like he was one of their own.
“That’s respect, brother.”
After going back-to-back in 1991 and 1992, the Penguins by no means received the Cup once more when Lemieux performed. They had been upset as heavy favorites within the Patrick Division remaining in 1993. Lemieux, exhausted from his most cancers remedies and a nonetheless ailing again, performed in solely 22 video games in 1993-94 and sat out the 1994-95 season.
“His body was broken,” Johnston mentioned. “He was still the best player. His body just didn’t let him play, wouldn’t let him compete the way he liked to compete.
“And don’t let anybody tell you he wasn’t a competitor. He didn’t talk a lot. He let his play talk for him. But, boy, did he love to compete.”
That a lot by no means was extra obvious than within the years Lemieux sat out within the late Nineties.
The Penguins had been on the brink on the finish of the Nineties. They had been bankrupt, caught in a decaying area, they usually wanted an proprietor who needed to maintain them in Pittsburgh. Lemieux was their largest owed creditor as a result of he hadn’t been paid in full on a contract he signed earlier that decade.
Lemieux had profitable provides — close to $20 million yearly — to un-retire and play for both the Canadiens or Rangers. He declined to entertain these potentialities and as a substitute fashioned an possession group to bid on the Penguins, saying they had been his legacy and holding them in Pittsburgh was his precedence. A chapter choose awarded the Penguins to Lemieux’s possession group in 1999. He watched their postseason sequence from the proprietor’s suite along with his household and felt one thing he hadn’t observed in years.
“I didn’t know a thing about it,” Patrick mentioned of Lemieux’s outstanding return from a 3 1/2-year retirement in December 2000. “I found out the day before the story broke.”
Stevens, enjoying for the Flyers to start out the 2000-01 season, remembers a dialog with a number of teammates when phrase unfold in November 2000 that Lemieux was coaching for a comeback. A number of gamers, together with some veterans, whom Stevens mentioned “should have known better,” doubted Lemieux would make a lot of an impression.
“I get why they thought like that, because who misses that much time and comes back in a big way?” Stevens mentioned. “But they didn’t know Mario like I did. I knew he wasn’t coming out of retirement unless he thought he could be what he was, and he was the best.”
No longer the one-on-one grasp from his youthful days, and much faraway from his finest skating, Lemieux shined with savvy throughout his comeback season. He dragged linemate Jaromir Jagr to a fifth and final scoring title with the Penguins, and completed as a Hart Trophy finalist. At the NHL Awards, Hart winner Joe Sakic thanked Lemieux “for not coming back sooner” — the implication being Lemieux had already re-asserted himself as hockey’s best power in a few half-season.
Lemieux performed in at the very least 60 video games solely as soon as after his 2000-01 comeback season. He posted 91 factors the season he did, however his coronary heart was elsewhere after captaining Canada to a gold medal on the 2002 Winter Olympics. From that time on, the NHL’s solely owner-player was set on securing funding for a brand new area that might safe the Penguins’ future in Pittsburgh. He wouldn’t obtain that purpose till after Crosby was drafted as his inheritor obvious in 2005.
Lemieux performed in 26 video games throughout Crosby’s rookie season in 2005-06. He assisted on Crosby’s first purpose. He retired for good to see the Penguins win the Cup 3 times underneath his possession, finishing in full the group’s transition from bottom-feeder to standard-bearer throughout his enrollment.
“He has this presence about him,” Crosby mentioned. “He doesn’t get rattled too much. He stays even-keeled.
“But he means everything to this organization, to this city. It’ll always be Mario.”
(Top photograph: Denis Brodeur / Getty Images)