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MILESTONE MEN: LEMIEUX, LECLAIR NEARING LANDMARKS

Saturday, 12.03.2005 / 12:00 AM / Pittsburgh Penguins
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MILESTONE MEN: LEMIEUX, LECLAIR NEARING LANDMARKS
Mario Lemieux and John LeClair are two of the best to play their position in NHL history.

So, it seems fitting they’d approach milestones at nearly the same time. Lemieux needs 10 goals to reach 700, while LeClair is 12 short of 400.

Talk about production – in order to reach 1,100 goals, you’d have to score one goal on the NHL level every single day for more than three years.

Reaching 700 goals is a special milestone for Lemieux, whose production was limited by various injuries and a three-year retirement.

“I don’t think I can count that high. That’s a lot of goals. What more can you say? He’s the ultimate person and a class guy,” said Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk, who played alongside Lemieux in 1997. “I am proud not only to say I am his coach, but his friend as well, which is most important.

“It’s an unbelievable number and it’s hard to imagine, but think about what if [he stayed healthy] – where he would be? I am looking forward to emptying the bench when he gets No. 700, that’s for sure.”

Penguins radio play-by-play announcer Paul Steigerwald has covered Lemieux throughout his career in Pittsburgh. He can’t help but wonder what sort of statistics Lemieux might have if he had even half of his health problems.

“For him, it’s a number that’s incredible, but I can’t help thinking that it would have been a lot higher than that if he had been healthy. I remember when Gordie Howe scored his 700th goal in this building against Les Binkley back in the late 1960s. That was a huge accomplishment at that time for Gordie Howe,” he said. “Mario Lemieux, to me, is a guy who could have far more goals. So, 700 is a tremendous achievement considering what he has been through.”

Lemieux has never played a full NHL season. He has missed 377 games in his 17 seasons on the ice. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop him from leading the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups and establishing himself as a Hall-of-Fame player. In 914 career games, he ranks seventh all-time with 1,722 points, eighth in goals (690) and 10th in assists (1,032).

Mario continues to climb NHL all-time goals, assists and points lists. He needs five goals to pass Mark Messier (694) for seventh place, nine assists to edge Marcel Dionne (1,040) for ninth and eight points to top Detroit’s Steve Yzerman for sixth, respectively.

Lemieux became the second-fastest player to reach 1,700 points. It took Wayne Gretzky 711 games and Lemieux 887. The others –Dionne (1,257), Yzerman (1,418), Messier (1,461), Gordie Howe (1,567) and ex-Pen Ron Francis (1,567) needed many more games to reach that mark.

“Considering his health problems and all the adversity he’s been through, for him to be even in a position to score 700 goals is an amazing achievement,” Steigerwald said. “In a way, I think that makes it an even more amazing story. Not everybody is going to be healthy all the time. Everybody has a different story, a different way of accomplishing things. In his case, adversity was something that brought out the best in him. To me, 700 goals is a milestone for him because of what he’s been through. It’s unique to him in that way. If another guy would get 700, it might not be as amazing. But, to me, it’s amazing that he’s able to do it under the circumstances.”

Phil Bourque, the Penguins’ radio color commentator, played alongside Lemieux from 1985-92. He points out No. 66’s scoring feats have extra meaning since the Penguins did not establish an elite team until well into Lemieux’s career – the franchise qualified for the playoffs once in Lemieux’s first six seasons.

“I think it’s such a special feat for Mario because of what he’s gone through in his career. You look at the other guys who have scored 700 goals and they have had pretty healthy careers and also they have had other Hall-of-Famers that they’ve been lucky enough to play with that had made reaching 700 maybe a little easier than what Mario has had to go through,” he said. “The combination of not always having elite players to play with and the health issues he’s gone through over the years have made that number even more special than probably the other guys.”

Despite Lemieux’s injury history, Steigerwald believes it is ironic that Lemieux remains on the ice at age 40.

“Now, it’s really interesting that Mario has developed a reputation for longevity because there was a time in his career where you would have thought that never would be the case – longevity was not one of the things you’d associate with Mario Lemieux,” he said. “Now, here he is at 40 and he wants to play even a couple more years. So, that’s kind of an interesting thing – he’s going to outlast some players who you would’ve thought would play longer than him.”

While Lemieux scored a bulk of his goals with grace and style, LeClair used grit and determination to put the puck in the net. He has dominated the NHL goal creases scoring 388 goals throughout his 15 NHL seasons.

“I will bet you 350 of them were scored from about four feet in front of the net,” Steigerwald said. “He could shoot the puck from long range, too. He paid the price for all those goals.”

LeClair tortured the Penguins while with the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers. He came to Pittsburgh as a free agent this year.

“The thing that stands out in my mind about John LeClair was the year we played the Flyers in the five overtimes [in the 2000 Eastern Conference semifinals],” Steigerwald said. “Other than Mario’s feats in the early 1990s, I never saw a player who was as unstoppable and indomitable as he was against us in that series. He was just unstoppable.

“He’d get down around the net and he’d just refuse to be denied the area in front of the net with the puck. It was incredible,” he continued. “When he decided he was going to take the puck to the net and create a good scoring chance, he just did it and there was nothing we could do to stop him. That was the era when you could hook guys and tackle them and anything else. To me, he’s been an indomitable force down low and one of the great cyclers.

“He’s really good at picking around the net and just doing all those little things you do around the cage to get yourself in position to score. It’s amazing to watch his hands and see how much he works on shooting and trying to score from there. It’s not by accident he scored all those goals. Before practice and every warm-up, he’s shooting a ton of pucks all different ways – backhand, forehand – at the net. He’s really worked at becoming a goal scorer. The amount of effort he’s put into getting himself in the position to score goals and using his body is second to none.”

LeClair isn’t just a goal-scorer. He has just as many assists (388) as goals for 776 points. Nevertheless, Bourque is thrilled to see LeClair near the 400 goal and 400 assist milestones.

“That’s a huge number. People look at that number and say, ‘Oh he played a long time. He probably should have about that number.’ No, it doesn’t work that way,” he said. “It just shows his dedication to consistency. That’s the most difficult thing in the NHL is to consistently put up the numbers that guys like Mario and John and even Mark Recchi have done over the years. You look at how many guys who have had one-time 30-goal years or one-time 40-goal years and then they fall off the map. To do it consistently year in and year out with the style that he played – he played a real physical style – it’s just an incredible number to reach.”

LeClair is four games shy of 900 played for his career. Meanwhile, Mark Recchi, became the 60th player in NHL history to appear in 1,200 games Saturday night.

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