COVER

THE GRETZKY CHASE

MARIO LEMIEUX IS CHALLENGING 'THE GREAT ONE’ AS HOCKEY’S MOST TALENTED PLAYER

BRUCE WALLACE February 20 1989
COVER

THE GRETZKY CHASE

MARIO LEMIEUX IS CHALLENGING 'THE GREAT ONE’ AS HOCKEY’S MOST TALENTED PLAYER

BRUCE WALLACE February 20 1989

In the rowdy recent history of the National Hockey League, no player has matched the performance of Wayne Gretzky. For eight consecutive seasons beginning in 1979, The Great One dominated professional hockey as few athletes have ever mastered their sport. His potent scoring ability—which was in evidence during last week’s NHL all-star game in Edmonton—established records that may never be beaten. Gretzky’s talent and tireless off-the-ice promotion of his sport—as an Edmonton Oiler and, since last August, with the Los Angeles Kings—made him hockey’s foremost ambassador and its single most identifiable personality. Until Mario Lemieux.

Prolific: With a grace that is surprising for his towering six-foot, four-inch, 210-lb. frame and a flair for scoring spectacular goals, the Pittsburgh Penguins centre is suddenly challenging Gretzky’s supremacy as hockey’s most talented player and most prolific scorer. With more than 20 games left in the current season, the Penguins star was already 25 points ahead of The Great One in the points race last week. At the same time, Lemieux—along with Gretzky—is assuming a leadership role that is helping to win new fans and transform the image of North American hockey from a violent sideshow to a sport of athletic artistry and skill. A gifted playmaker like Gretzky, the 23-year-old Lemieux seems almost certain this year to lead the once-moribund Penguins into the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 1982. “My goal,” Lemieux told Maclean’s, “is to win three or four Stanley Cups.”

Still, the 28-year-old Gretzky clearly remains near the pinnacle of his game and, wearing his black and silver Kings uniform, shows no willingness to easily surrender the mantle of greatness. Outplaying Lemieux in last week’s all-star game in Edmonton, Gretzky showcased dazzling moves that earned him a goal and two assists, while helping the Clarence Campbell Conference to a 9-5 victory over the players from the Prince of Wales Conference. Lemieux was held to one assist with the Prince of Wales team.

With the torch not yet passed from Gretzky to his younger rival, Canadian hockey may now be in the midst of a new Golden Age. Past hockey eras have boasted their own stars. During the 1960s and 1970s, the sport was dominated at various times by the Chicago Blackhawks’ Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins and Montreal’s Guy Lafleur who, at the age of 37, is currently making an impressive comeback with the New York Rangers. But not since the 1950s, when hockey fans hotly debated whether the Montreal Canadiens’ Maurice (Rocket) Richard or Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings was the world’s greatest player, has the sport had two such supremely talented players in the league at the same time.

Lavish: The increasing lustre of North American hockey has led to larger salaries for its stars. Gretzky will earn an estimated $23.6 million over the life of his eight-year contract with the Kings. Lemieux, who first signed with Pittsburgh for about $800,000 over a three-year contract, now earns $1.9 million annually, making him the second-highest-paid NHL player, after Gretzky.

The lavish contracts are also serving as an increasingly powerful attraction for players of the world’s other major hockey power—the Soviet Union, where hockey is increasingly under fire for poor organization and autocratic coaching.

Valuable: As a hockey star who is not given to flamboyant gestures off the ice, the soft-spoken Lemieux’s stardom is a product of his remarkable scoring ability. During the 1987-1988 season, Lemieux scored 70 goals and 98 assists for a total of 168 points. As a result, he seized the league’s Hart Trophy as its most valuable player away from Gretzky, who had claimed it for the previous eight years. By last week, with the Penguins in first place in the Patrick Division, Lemieux’s point total put him on a course to beat Gretzky’s single-season record of 215 points, set during the 1985-1986 season. As well, Lemieux’s 50th goal of the season in his team’s 46th game last Jan. 20 made him the only player other than Gretzky—who has done it three times—ever to score 50 goals in fewer than 50 games. In one game against the New Jersey Devils in December, Lemieux scored five goals, each in a different game situation: one on a power play, one shorthanded, one with the teams at even strength, one on a penalty shot and one into an empty net.

Lemieux’s goals are often accomplished with sensational style. He is capable of powerful, accurate shots. Like Gretzky, he has a knack for anticipating plays and making passes to teammates through a maze of sticks and skates. But unlike the 170-lb. Gretzky, Lemieux can use his size and strength to shrug off would-be checkers. Said Montreal Canadiens defenceman Larry Robinson: “When he has the puck, he can shield it with his big body so that no one else can get near it.”

Lemieux’s talents have made him the toast of Pittsburgh, where he was honored earlier this month as the city’s man of the year. His impact on the city is perhaps best reflected in attendance figures at Pittsburgh’s 16,033-seat Civic Arena. In the 1983-1984 season—the year before Lemieux joined the club—the lacklustre Penguins averaged a paltry 6,800 fans at their 40 home games—and at one stage owner Edward J. DeBartolo considered selling the franchise to a group of investors who planned to move the team to Hamilton, Ont. But with Lemieux in the lineup the following year, attendance jumped to an average of 10,000 a game, and this year the average is more than 15,500. Said Jack Ham, who was a linebacker with the city’s celebrated National Football League team, the Steelers, during the 1970s: “Pittsburgh used to be a football town, but Mario has made it in vogue to be at the hockey games.”

Status: So closely is Lemieux identified with the city that when Mayor Sophie Masloff was a guest on Pat Sajak’s CBS television talk show in January, she presented the host with a Penguins jersey bearing Lemieux’s now-familiar number—66.

Despite his growing status as a celebrity, Lemieux is only beginning to shed his habitual shyness. During his first two seasons as a Penguin, his reserve led some Pittsburgh sportswriters to affectionately nickname him “The Big Goof” for his terse, unexciting responses to questions. Now, with a newly acquired fluency in English, Lemieux is becoming more confident in his assertions about what hockey should be—although, with characteristic modesty, he still acknowledges the greatness of his principal rival. “What Gretzky has to say about hockey is important and should be listened to,” Lemieux told Maclean’s. Adding that on-ice brawling is a destructive feature of the NHL, Lemieux said, “I think that if Gretzky and myself and a few of the other great players in the league get together and demand changes to parts of the game, we could be successful.” Lemieux and Gretzky are already changing the style of play. Declared the Canadiens’ Robinson: “Wayne and Mario have helped turn the NHL into a scorers’ league. The game is faster and it rewards players, like Mario, who have great hockey intuition and who can do inventive things with the puck.”

Affluence: Lemieux’s stature on the ice has been matched by growing affluence in the star’s personal life. He now lives permanently in Pittsburgh, and he is building a house on a double lot in the nearby suburb of Mount Lebanon. Lemieux lives with 22-year-old Nathalie Asselin, a Montreal native who has been his girlfriend for seven years.

Because of his growing celebrity status, he is evidently conscious of the need to serve as a role model for younger fans. Like Gretzky, he drinks sparingly and quit smoking more than a year ago. Said Warren Young, a friend and teammate of Lemieux’s during his rookie year in Pittsburgh who is now retired from hockey: “Everyone tells him how good a role model Gretzky is, and Mario wants to be the same way.”

Mario Lemieux has been a closely watched hockey player ever since he emerged as a record-shattering junior star with the Laval Voisins on the northern outskirts of Montreal. The son of retired construction worker Jean-Guy Lemieux and his wife, Pierrette, Lemieux was the youngest of three sons. Growing up in the working-class Montreal district of Ville Emard, Lemieux began playing hockey when he was 3. In his third year with the Laval team, Lemieux scored 133 goals in 70 games, making him an eagerly sought player when he became eligible for the NHL draft at 18. Like countless Montreal youngsters before him, Lemieux dreamed of playing for his home-town team. “I think every kid who grows up in Montreal wants to play for the Canadiens, and I was no different,” he recalled. “Lafleur was the best player in the world when I was growing up and he was certainly my idol.”

But it was the Penguins who finished with the NHL’s worst record during the 1983-1984 season and won the privilege of drafting Lemieux. At first, he was wary of playing in Pittsburgh. Although the Penguins’ management arranged for him to live with a Pittsburgh family for his first season to help him adapt to the city and improve his English, Lemieux said that he missed his friends and parents. Back in his Montreal childhood home, which is filled with photographs, trophies and plaques honoring Lemieux’s hockey accomplishments, Lemieux’s parents avidly watched television broadcasts of Penguins games received from a satellite dish that their son had installed on the roof of their house.

Although his 100-point total helped Lemieux win rookie of the year honors during his first NHL season, he also drew scathing criticism from some hockey commentators for what they said was lackadaisical play. “He was a floater,” said television analyst and former NHL coach Don Cherry. “He played hard only when the mood hit him.” The criticism grew when Lemieux at first refused to join Team Canada for the 1985 world championship tournament in Prague. In the end, Lemieux played with the team, scoring four goals and six assists. Said Warren Young: “He had just lived through an overwhelming year in a strange country where he had not yet mastered English and he was anxious to get home to see his family.”

In fact, it was Lemieux’s spectacular playing in the 1987 Canada Cup series against the Soviet Union that finally persuaded most critics of Lemieux’s star quality. Although team officials expressed concern about his poor physical condition and uninspired play during training sessions, Lemieux excelled in the series, scoring 11 goals in nine games. The most dramatic goal came on a pass from Gretzky in the closing minutes of the final game to beat the Soviets 6-5.

Cherry and other hockey experts point to the series as the turning point in Lemieux’s career. “Gretzky showed him that to be the best you can never stop working,” declared Cherry. Lemieux said that the series was a watershed in his career. “The Canada Cup came at a time when I was ready for a challenge,” he said. “And seeing the example of Gretzky and [Edmonton Oilers] Mark Messier and all those guys who have won championships before was good for me.”

Strengths: Suddenly more confident on the ice, and comfortable in Pittsburgh, Lemieux roared into the 1987-1988 NHL season. With his 168-point total for the season, he became only the third player in history—the others are Gretzky in seven different years and Boston’s Phil Esposito in 1970-1971—to amass more than 150 points in a single season. “There has never been a player of his size, with his raw talent,” said Penguins defenceman Paul Coffey, who as an Edmonton Oiler played with Gretzky for seven years. “Wayne is always looking to pass to set up a goal. But Mario is capable of going through three or four players to score himself if he wants.”

At the same time, Lemieux’s physical strength has contributed to some spectacular goals. In Quebec City last March 27, he skated in on a breakaway and scored, even though the Nordiques’ Marc Fortier had jumped onto his back. Said Dave Molinari, a sportswriter for the daily Pittsburgh Press: “What would be great plays for mere mortals are just another play for Mario.” Added Pittsburgh forward Rob Brown, who—with Lemieux’s help—has emerged as one of the league’s top scorers: “Sometimes, even on the ice, I get caught up watching in awe what Mario can do with the puck.”

If the Canada Cup encouraged Lemieux to aim for even greater accomplishments as a player, it also marked a change in his off-ice image. He made a conscious effort to avoid the petulance that sometimes characterized his early career and, instead, tried to emulate Gretzky’s model behavior. Said Thomas Reich, Lemieux’s Pittsburgh-based agent: “People expected instant sainthood, but Mario is maturing all the time. He can be as good for hockey’s image as Gretzky.” The improved image has helped Lemieux expand his portfolio of endorsements. He now endorses Koho hockey equipment, a line of casual sportswear and Toronto-based Effem Foods Ltd.’s Snickers chocolate bars. Earlier this month, Lemieux—wearing jeans and running shoes under hockey equipment—sat in a simulated dressing room in Pittsburgh to film English-speaking parts for a Snickers commercial. Lemieux dutifully took bites from a chocolate bar and spoke his lines before spitting the chocolate out, off-camera.

Quiet: Now Lemieux’s celebrity status—and the local hockey mania sparked by the Penguins’ improved play—is making it hard for him to travel around Pittsburgh without being stopped by fans. When Lemieux drops into The Metropol, a fashionable Pittsburgh dance club, he is more likely to slip into a private upstairs lounge than mingle in the crush below. Away from the rink, Lemieux leads a quiet life. He said that he and Asselin plan to get married—eventually. But, he added, “for now, my career comes first.”

Besides his remarkable skill as a hockey player, Lemieux is a talented golfer who shoots in the mid-70s. He has even told friends that he might consider trying to join the professional golf tour once his hockey career is over.

Playoffs: For the immediate future, Lemieux’s greatest challenge is to help the Penguins to reach the NHL playoffs, a feat that has eluded him through four seasons. Many hockey observers cite the Penguins’ failure to even make the playoffs as evidence that Gretzky is a far superior player to Lemieux; in his nine years as an Oiler, Gretzky led his team to four Stanley Cups. But Coffey, who played on three of those teams, remembered that Gretzky, too, was denied recognition as the best in the game until the Oilers finally won a Stanley Cup. Said Coffey: “For years, Wayne had to listen to people claim that he was only an offensive player and that he could not win the big games. That all stopped when we won the Cup. And Mario will hear the same criticism until we win one for Pittsburgh.”

Still, Maurice Richard, who is now a public relations official for Molson’s Brewery Quebec Ltd. and the Montreal Canadiens, for one, questions whether Lemieux has the intensity to dominate hockey. “Lemieux is a better natural player than I was,” said Richard. “But does he have the fire in his eyes the way I did? No.” When he was told of Richard’s comments, Lemieux responded with an easy smile. “I may be more of a finesse player than Richard was, but that does not mean I lack determination,” he said. “If I want to be remembered as one of the best to play the game, I have to be a winner, and that certainly is missing from my game now.” To the already converted fans in Pittsburgh, Lemieux’s supremacy is unquestioned. With Gretzky’s talents still abundantly in evidence while Lemieux comes swiftly up behind him, the hockey world may eventually have to consider which is the greatest player of his era.