Le Grand Lemieux
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the day Mario Lemieux became a Pittsburgh Penguin and changed the course of franchise history forever. On June 9, 1984 the Penguins selected the 18-year-old Montreal, Quebec native first overall at the NHL Draft. This article originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a couple of months before that fateful day, on April 2, 1984. It was written by Tom McMillan, who currently serves as Penguins VP of communications.
LAVAL, Quebec – Mario Lemieux has the puck now, and 4,000 French Canadians in the 3,069-seat Centre Sportif Laval lean forward. Quebec province legend evolves from these moments, Lemieux swooping down on some thoroughly horrified fellow in the goal crease, the fellow probably wishing he was standing in Chicoutimi somewhere in the snow. National Hockey League scouts stop their jabbering. Le Grand M! But Patrick Roy, who has been tending some splendid goal this night for Les Bisons de Granby, reacts courageously, stands his ice.
The shot screeches wide
It has been this kind of night for Lemieux, the most prolific single-season scorer in the history of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. “You didn’t see Mario at his best tonight,” says Jean Begin, the apologetic Laval coach. “Tonight was a tough game for him, because he had been injured. Because they covered him a lot.”
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“Some nights,” says Eddie Johnston, the Penguins general manager, “this guy is just awesome. He did some nice things with the puck tonight, but I’ve seen him seven, eight times. I’ve seen him get seven points in a game.”
“I’ve seen him get eight points,” says Jim Gregory, the director of NHL Central Scouting. “Our people were there one night when he got 11. You just didn’t see him at his best.”
Les Voisins de Laval prevail, 3-1, in the Quebec league playoff game, but their first line center, their best player, has braved an off-night. Mario Lemieux, Le Grand M of Laval, has scored one goal, two assists.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, bless their inept little souls, back their truck into the NHL vault on the afternoon of June 9, 1984. At the league’s entry draft, which has always been a Penguin tragedy, Eddie Johnston is expected to invest the future of his franchise in one Mario Lemieux of Montreal, Quebec.
“I heard EJ practicing,” says one club official, “in both French and English.”
Now, some numbers. They are 6-4, 200, 133, 149, 282 and 1. They represent in order Lemieux’s height, weight, goals, assists, points and rank among draft-eligible players by NHL Central Scouting.
“You look at the guys who have been great players out of this league – Lafleur, Larouche, Bossy – he’s broken every record they have,” Eddie Johnston says. Johnston’s speech runs at 78 rpms in normal conversation, but now the words flee from his lips in a fast-forward blur. “We need that big, dominant guy, and this guy’s presence is felt. He’s got great skills. He’s doing things tonight you can’t see. It looks like we’re going to take him. It’s 99.9 percent. This guy can come in… it’s like bringing in a Rozier. He’s the best player in the country.”
The best player in the country got his 133 goals and 282 points in 70 games this season, blotting out the QMJHL records created by Guy Lafleury (130 goals in 62 games) and Pierre Larouche (251 points). On the last night of the regular season, he needed four goals to pass Lafleur; he popped in six, to go with five assists. “His offensive skills are awesome,” Gregory says. Lemieux scored at least one point in 61 straight games, a major junior record, and his 315 assists in three seasons represent the highest total in Quebec league history. He is second in career points (562) and sixth in career goals (247), although each of the players ahead of him played at least four junior seasons.
“I asked all these scouts the difference between Mario and everyone else,” Laval owner Claude Fournel says, “and they all tell me the same thing.” Fournel, who once played hockey at Michigan State, spreads his arms the width of a goal mouth. “This much.”
Conveniently, the Penguins possess the first overall pick in the June 9 draft, an honor they wrenched from the New Jersey Devils for finishing 21st in the 21-team NHL. Coincidentally, they have not dealt their No. 1 for Andres Hakansson or Ron Meighan or Rod Schutt or Hartland Monohan this time. “You’re looking at a guy who’s going to be in Pittsburgh for a long time,” Eddie Johnston is saying in a corridor of the Centre Sportif Laval. “Trading our first pick…no, we’re not doing that stuff no more. That’s what we’ve done before. If we didn’t trade away our first pick last year (the first overall), we’d be sitting on (Pat) LaFontaine and Lemieux right now.”
Yes, but the nearby Montreal Canadiens wish to retain Mario Lemieux in the city of his birth. The Quebec Nordiques want to keep him in the province. Rumors. Montreal dangles two prospects and the first-round pick it acquired from Hartford. Quebec mentions the Stastny brothers, maybe two, maybe three. Minnesota’s Lou Nanne, Sweet Lou from the Soo, bids every one of his 1984 draft choices.
“I say to Eddie, ‘If they want him so bad, why should we give up,’” says Albert Mandancici, the Penguins’ Quebec scout, whose son played youth hockey against Lemieux.
“I will wait until I get to the draft table June 9,” Johnston says, “but nothing any team’s going to give me is going to sway me. That’s over with. Especially the No. 1 pick overall. Look, if we have LaFontaine and Lemieux we’re set for 10, 15 years.
“Montreal, Quebec… no question they’d like to have a French Canadian like him. They don’t want to get into names too much now because they’ve still got the playoffs. No question there’s pressure in Montreal because of what happened to Savard. (In 1980, Montreal bypassed Denis Savard, a French Canadian, to choose Doug Wickenheiser. Savard is a marvelous scorer for the Chicago Blackhawks. Wickenheiser is now a St. Louis Blue.)
“But who are these guys going to give me?” Johnston demands. “That’s what we’ve done before. You build your team with first-round picks, not fourth- or fifth-rounders. I’ve had guys say, ‘We’ll give you six players.’ I tell them, ‘Stick it in your ear.’”
It is by public demand that the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League suffocates defensive hockey, choosing, instead, to coax many goals from many sticks. “All our hockey in the province is concentrated on the offensive,” says Paul Dumont, the QMJHL president. “Our fans like that kind of hockey. We don’t supply the NHL with defensemen, with few exceptions. Our accent here is on scoring goals.”
It is one of the reasons NHL teams used just 24 of their 242 picks to draft Quebec league players last June, dipping more passionately into the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Canada Hockey League and U.S. colleges and high schools. Inflated scoring statistics make it difficult to assess all but the supremely talented Quebec prospects. Of the five players in league history who scored more goals than Lemieux – Mike Bossy (291), Normand Dupont (278), Jacques Locas (269), Norm Aubin (258) and Sylvain Locas (254) – only Bossy has imposed his marvelous touch on his NHL brethren.
“If I told you it doesn’t matter what league they play in, I’d be lying,” says Gregory of NHL Central Scouting. “But it doesn’t matter what league they play in when they’re good. Know what I mean? It didn’t matter that (Buffalo’s) Tom Barrasso played in a U.S. high school league where he faced five shots a game. When (the New York Islanders’) Pat LaFontaine was playing for the Compuware Midgets in Detroit, they said he’ll never do that in junior. When he scored more points in the Quebec league, they said he’ll never do that against the big boys. Look at him now.
“For some players in the Quebec league, the type of play might have an affect. Not Lemieux. It wouldn’t matter what league Lemieux played in.”
The Central Scouting folks wrap a blanket of confidentiality around their periodic ratings, but newspaper leaks have revealed the 18-year-old Lemieux – who missed qualifying for last year’s NHL draft by 20 days – to be stationed at the top of each list of prospects. They like his size, his shot, his creative passing skills. “He controls the tempo of the game,” Gregory says, reading from a declassified report. “He’s such a good passer. When he’s got the puck, he makes things happen. He doesn’t normally play aggressively, but if someone challenges him, he’ll let them have it.”
Lemieux was ranked first in the latest Central Scouting Top Five, ahead of defenseman Al Iafrate, center Kirk Muller, left wing Ed Olczyk and defenseman Craig Redmond. “When I came into the league three years ago, that was my goal, to be No. 1 in three years,” Lemieux says. “I’m not far, I guess, from being No. 1.”
Still, he has detractors, among them NHL scouts, who jab him for his lack of skating speed, for his poor defense, for the quick temper that costs him needless penalties.
“I see two things that have to be improved,” says Bob Perno, who oversees the province for Gus Badali, the agent who represents Lemieux. “One is his defensive game. We’re not hiding anything. Most super scorers have weaknesses on defense. We’re sure the team that drafts Mario will have competent coaches to teach him the defensive aspects of the game.
“Two is control of his temper. He’s extremely, extremely proud. That pride sometimes costs him with regard to penalties. He hates to lose. Sometimes the crowd thinks he’s spoiled because of temper tantrums. He’s not spoiled. He just hates to lose. In the pros, he’ll have to adjust. It won’t be easy the first few years.”
Lemieux: “It will be tough in the beginning, but I will control myself.”
The defense, the skating, the other negatives real and imagined do not puncture Eddie Johnston’s enthusiasm. “The one thing you can teach in this game is defense,” he says. “You can’t teach offense. I’ve seen him in 2-1 games where he’s done his job. As for the skating, did you see him guys? He goes by some. Any time you’ve got a guy 6-4, 6-5 on skates, he doesn’t look as fast. The little guys are going this way and that way. But he gets there.”
What Johnston likes is this: Lemieux, the top midget draft choice in the province at age 15, arrived at Laval when Les Voisins were dead last in the Quebec league, and he repaired a stammering offense and helped double home attendance. In Lemieux’s rookie season, Laval dented the playoffs for the first time since the Bossy years. In the next two, Voisins won regular season championships. Now, after a 54-16 rampage through the 70-game schedule, they have executed Granby, four games to none, in the first round of the playoffs, and the Centre Sportif Laval chokes on French Canadian humanity.
“This kid is marketable. He’s a Wayne Gretzky,” says Perno, Badali’s man in Montreal. (Badali, you should know, also represents Gretzky). “He’s of that caliber, on and off the ice. When he walks into a room, everyone turns around. He will sell hockey in any city he plays.”
The last time the Penguins spent their first-round pick on a high-scoring French Canadian from Quebec, Pierre Larouche stole the city’s heart and smashed it into little pieces.
As an 18-year-old rookie in 1974, Larouche fulfilled many Penguin prayers, resurrected hope about the future of hockey in Pittsburgh. He was talented, charming, good-looking – the winner of a “Date With Pierre” contest was once introduced at center ice – and by his second season he had obliterated team scoring records with 53 goals and 111 points. But Larouche arrived as an immature teen-ager from a different culture with a weak grip on the English language, and he wrestled with the instant celebrity. He lived life in the fast lane, missed practices, stirred controversy. Two years after his 111-point season – a Penguins record that still stands – he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens.
(Since Larouche arrived in 1974, the Penguins have drafted precisely three players from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, none of whom has made the team.)
“It’s hard enough to adjust to the caliber of the NHL without adjusting to life itself,” Persno says. “But Mario’s English, as far as I’m concerned, is no problem whatsoever. Mario right now is almost bilingual. By the time he gets to camp, he will be bilingual.
“And we’ve been preparing Mario for three years for the media pressure. We knew three years ago he was going to be the best. Gus Badali handled Wayne Gretzky when Wayne had the same problems, the same pressures, the same successes. We’ve steered Mario with the same advice. I don’t think Pierre ever had that type of guidance. It was given to him – boom, you’re a star.”
Lemieux quit school last year to concentrate on hockey, but he has taken English courses and practices the language regularly. In the living room of his parents’ modest home at 6700 Jogues, he sits for 45 minutes with a Pittsburgh reporter, using acceptable English, stumbling only once. (“It’s a big…how you say that?...yes, challenge, to build a team from young guys like we did in Laval.”)
Moreover, he has a second-hand knowledge of life in the United States because his 22-year-old brother, Alain, is the property of the St. Louis Blues and plays this season for Rochester of the American Hockey League. He wants to tell you Alain will be a free agent this year. He wants to tell you they would like to live in the same city, play for the same team. “Maybe I’ll speak to Eddie Johnston about this,” Lemieux says.
Still, Le Grand M has been haunted by ripples of controversy as a junior player, has paid a toll for his parking space in the Candian spotlight. There were rumors – which Lemieux has denied – that he would refuse to play for a lesser NHL team, that he was offered $250,000 by Quebec league owners to play one more year of junior. But he did refuse to play for the Canadian junior national team this year, and he took the Quebec league to court, and his name appeared in headlines for much more than scoring the ungodly sum of 282 points in 70 games.
“When he turned down the Canadian junior team, it created an awful big story,” Perno says.
A big, complicated story. It begins this way: Lemieux played for last year’s Canadian national junior team, which was coached by defense-oriented Dave King. Lemieux scored 11 points in the first four games of the world junior tournament, but King, seeking more checking, benched him for the last three games. Lemieux fumed. “After that, Mario said, ‘I will never play for him again,’” says Robert Bousquet, who covers the Quebec league for Montreal’s la Presse. “King has said he doesn’t like Lemieux because he thinks too much offensively.”
“We had a misunderstanding, me and him,” Lemieux says.
King coached this year’s Canadian Olympic team. Lemieux was not invited (Canada, coincidentally, reached the Olympic medal round but did not score a goal in its last three games). When the junior national team wanted him again, Lemieux, motivated by the bitterness of his world junior experience and the chance for Quebec league scoring records, said no.
“It wound up in court – the junior league was going to suspend him,” Perno says. This is because the Quebec league has assured Hockey Canada that its best players would be available for international competition. Any player refusing to compete in the world junior tournament would be unable to compete for his league team for the duration of the tournament – approximately two weeks.
“I wanted to stay in Laval,” Lemieux says. “I wanted to spend Christmas with my family, because it my be my last Christmas here. I had the experienced the tournament two years ago. I just wanted to play in Laval, maybe get some records, finish first in the league.”
“It was the first time a French Canadian had turned down the big machine,” Perno says. “There was a lot of criticism. We told him going to court might effect the (NHL) draft, but he wanted to do it.” Lemieux won the case, did not go to the junior tournament and continued to play for Laval.
“People here now regard Mario Lemieux as a hero,” Perno says, “because he stood up and fought for what he believed was right.”
The Mario Lemieux-to-Pittsburgh dream almost ended in its infancy Friday, March 23. That night, in the third period of a playoff victory at Granby, Lemieux was charged from behind by defenseman Mario Canuel. His head hit the glass. The glass shattered, Lemieux did not move for four minutes.
“Oh God,” Bob Perno says, “I thought his career was over. I’ll tell you, when you see a kid you’ve followed around for three years – I live and die with this kid – you see him laying on the ice not moving, it throws a scare into you. He told me after the game he could hear the crowd but he couldn’t see anything.”
Three nights later, Lemieux is back in the Laval lineup, scoring his one goal and two assists against Granby, delighting young Lavallois behind the net who have hung Mario Canuel in effigy. Eddie Johnston’s grin is running past his cheekbones. “That’s another big factor, durability,” Johnston says. “He’s played every game this year. He hasn’t miss any. The way he got hit the other night, most guys wouldn’t even be out there.”
Johnston is careful to leave a tiny public loophole in his Lemieux draft plans – “It looks like we’re going to take him,” he tells reporters regularly – but he met Lemieux for the first time outside the Laval locker room last Monday night, and they talked about the future, about the Penguins’ three first-round draft choices.
“He said, ‘You will love Pittsburgh,’ and he told me he’s not going to exchange his pick,” Lemieux says. He is asked, in the rubble of previous reports, if he is disappointed. “No,” he says, “because it is an NHL team. It’s hard, you know, to start with a team that is last, but they have young guys on the team. I see in the paper they (drew) 3,000 people against the Devils. We have to build this team. I prepare myself to go there.
“Is that a nice city?”
Although QMJHL fans taunt Lemieux in sites around the province, various Lavallois say that he is classy, easy-going, family-oriented away from the rink. “I don’t think he wants to live in the fast lane,” says Suzanne Fournel, wife of the Laval owner. “I think he will do well. I don’t see the pattern changing.” Others, Claude Fournel included, concentrate on hockey, the beautiful hockey.
“Mario’s not a fast skater, he’s a smart skater,” Claude Fournel says. “But that’s what they say about Gretzky. He’s not a goal-scorer. That’s not the biggest asset. But yet he can score more goals than anybody else. That’s what everybody said about Gretzky.
“It’s unbelievable. He’s complete. If (Penguins owner Edward) DeBartolo wants to know what he’s worth, you tell him to call me.”
Before Lemieux arrived in Laval three seasons ago, Claude Fournel’s team lived its life in last place, struggling, drawing crowds below 1,000. Last Monday, for the playoff game against Granby, Suzanne Fournel had to turn folks away from the Centre Sportif Laval for the first time.
“What,” Claude Fournel asks, “would the Oilers be without Gretzky?
“What would the Penguins be without Mario?
“You tell DeBartolo to call me.”