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Forty years after drafting Mario Lemieux, the Penguins feel his impact every day

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Eddie Johnston, the general manager who drafted Mario Lemieux 40 years ago this month, had only one concern when he announced the historic selection at the old Montreal Forum — and it wasn’t whether Lemieux would pull a Penguins jersey over his head.

Lemieux did not.

Ironically, Lemieux’s first act with the Penguins was to somewhat distance himself from a franchise he would spend the next four decades personifying, influencing and owning on and off the ice.

‘Those were his agents, not Mario. He didn’t want to do it,” Johnston said. “Mario and I never talked about it. Not that day. Not to this day.

‘I had done my homework. Now you hear about generational prospects. No, Mario was not a member of his generation. He was once in a lifetime, and not just as a player – as a person.

“We (the Penguins) are not here without Mario.”

GO DEEPER

NHL 99: Mario Lemieux could ‘do things no one else could do’

You may have heard something similar before. For those unfamiliar, consider the conditions in Pittsburgh prior to Lemieux’s arrival in 1984:

  • The Penguins were nine years removed from bankruptcy.
  • They averaged fewer than 8,500 fans during the 1982–83 season, when they finished with just 45 points and a goal differential of minus 137 despite a sixth-best 81 power play goals.
  • They practiced on a suburban high school track, one of the few in the Pittsburgh area at the time.
  • They had never advanced beyond two rounds of a postseason and were best known for two crushing playoff losses to the New York Islanders: a 3-0 series lead in 1975 and a 3-1 lead in the third period after an overtime loss in a decisive Game 5 in 1982.
  • Their owner, Edward DeBartolo, Sr., preferred to sell the franchise in support of the then more successful and popular Pittsburgh Spirit, an indoor football team that also played at the Civic Arena.

“When I played for the Oilers, we loved coming to Pittsburgh,” Paul Coffey said. “It was a great sports city. Steelers shirts and Pirates hats were everywhere. All the same colors, that black and gold. We were playing the Penguins, and the games weren’t very competitive, to be honest, and I said to the guys after the game, when we passed by a few times, ‘Man, if they ever figure out the hockey thing here, this will be a destination.”

“Well, they’ve figured it out. The answer was Mario. I don’t think any player in our game has meant more to any city or franchise.”

That’s a big statement, even if it comes from a former teammate of Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Steve Yzerman — so Coffey, a Hall of Famer like these three, is a qualified expert. And it’s not like Coffey is the only one who has that opinion.

Scotty Bowman, the NHL’s most accomplished coach, won one of his nine Stanley Cup championships behind the bench with Lemieux’s Penguins in 1992. The Penguins had won their first title in 1991, and Lemieux, who was coming off back surgery in 1990 that diminished his wow factor. -gosh cunning and only gave him two more seasons in which he played in at least 70 games, became the new ‘Mr. Hockey” from Sports Illustrated after averaging 2.05 points per game en route to back-to-back Stanley Cup/Conn Smythe wins.

“That’s what people called Gordie Howe,” Bowman said. “To give that to Mario, and he deserved it, was special.”

He and the Penguins were undoubtedly at their peak, even with his bad back. He started the 1992–93 season with 39 goals and 104 points in 40 games before missing two months after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease (now called Hodgkin’s lymphoma).

He returned after eight weeks of treatment and virtually no time on the ice, scoring 30 goals and 56 points in his last 20 games.

“He wanted Wayne’s record (single-season points record),” said former Penguins executive Kevin Stevens, referring to Gretzky’s 215 points. “He would wipe it out if you ask anyone on our team.

“If Mario doesn’t get cancer that season, he might have scored 100 goals and 230 points. I’m not kidding. And we win the Cup again, and he’ll go down as the best ever – even above Wayne.”

In the decades-old debate over Gretzky or Lemieux, Gretzky wins almost everywhere except Montreal and Pittsburgh. It’s Pittsburgh where Lemieux is universally seen as the greatest, and not because of his three Hart Trophies, six Art Ross Trophies and those two Cup wins.

“He’s Paul Bunyan from Pittsburgh,” Bryan Trottier said. “I mean, there’s so much to Mario’s story that you wouldn’t believe it’s real.

“He was never healthy by the time I got to Pittsburgh (1990). He had the back. He had the cancer. His hips were a mess. He couldn’t tie his own skates. Despite all this, he was still the best player in the league, but Mario went further.

“He literally made the Penguins what they have become.”

Again, you may have heard something similar before. For those unfamiliar, consider the conditions in Pittsburgh following Lemieux’s diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease in 1993:

  • He played in just 22 games in 1993-94 and sat out the 1994-95 season.
  • He returned to capture another Hart Trophy, his third, and two more Art Ross Trophies, his fifth and sixth, but retired for more than three seasons after the 1996–97 season.
  • Due to ownership’s financial problems, he was left unpaid for most of a then-recording contract.
  • Amid ownership disputes and crippling debt, the Penguins went bankrupt for a second time and were at risk of being moved or dissolved in the late 1990s, and Lemieux was their largest creditor.

“The Canadiens and Rangers were willing to pay him $25 million to play for them for one season,” Johnston said. “He could have done it and made most of his money. But there was no chance. Not Mario.

“The Penguins meant too much to him.”

So after doing the once-impossible in the early 1990s by putting the Penguins on par with the Steelers and Pirates in popularity, Lemieux ended the decade by forming an ownership group to buy them out of bankruptcy. A feel-good story, except it cost the previous owner money to renovate the Civic Arena instead of interfering with the sports facilities legislation that Pennsylvania politicians passed for the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia teams. Lemieux owned the Penguins, but they remained in a bleak financial situation, mainly due to Jaromir Jagr’s hefty contract and an unfavorable revenue arrangement at their arena.

“Things weren’t going well even after he took control of our team,” said Mike Lange, the longtime voice of the Penguins. “I’ll tell you, if Mario doesn’t come back in 2000, I don’t know if we can last long enough for ‘The Kid’ to come out many years later.”

Lange means Sidney Crosby – “Sid the Kid,” who the Penguins first drafted in 2005. A lot was asked of Crosby, but it was nothing compared to what was asked of Lemieux.

“Not even close,” Crosby said in 2016. Crosby briefly played with Lemieux before the latter retired for good in 2005 and spent a few seasons in Lemieux’s guest house.

“I mean, when you think about everything we have here – this (practice) facility, the (current) arena, the expectations – it all stems from what he did for the Penguins. It’s something special about Mario and this franchise. I don’t know if people outside of Pittsburgh really appreciate what it is. It’s unique. You just don’t see it that often.”

Michael Farber, who often wrote about Lemieux for Sports Illustrated, cited Babe Ruth with the New York Yankees and Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics as the only comparable athletes to Lemieux in terms of influencing a franchise. Unlike Lemieux, both ended up with stints elsewhere: Ruth as a player with the Boston Braves, Russell as coach/general manager with the Seattle SuperSonics.

Lemieux remains a minority owner of the Penguins.

His ownership group was sold to Fenway Sports Group a few years ago, but Lemieux retained a fractional share. He is not involved in the daily decisions. But as became clear when he returned for Jagr’s jersey retirement last February, there is one Penguin who stands above it all.

The Penguins carefully planned Lemieux’s participation in Jagr’s retirement ceremony. He didn’t want to detract from Jagr’s big night. But when it came time to introduce Lemieux to a sold-out crowd at PPG Paints Arena that night, extra time was built in because the Penguins’ game night crew expected fans to want to give Lemieux a lengthy standing ovation.

They did. They always do that.

“Of course,” Trottier said. “It’s not just that Mario was a great player for the Pittsburgh fans. It’s that they saw him dealing with health issues. They see his charity working with the local hospitals. They know he saved the team twice.

“And let’s face it, the Penguins became the Penguins – high-flying, high-scoring, big stars like Jags and Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin – because of Mario. The identity of the franchise is still based on what it was and what it did.”


Mario Lemieux waves to the crowd during Jaromir Jagr’s jersey retirement ceremony in February. (Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Forty years after drafting Lemieux, Johnston shared his one concern of the day at the Montreal Forum. He planned to announce the choice in his native language, French, but he worried his excitement would “confuse it.”

He didn’t.

“I had spent so much time telling Mr. DeBartolo how special Mario was. Finally he said, “Eddie, he’s just one man; no one can live up to what you tell me,’” Johnston said.

“I said to him, ‘Just watch. Mario will be the best thing that ever happened to this team. They’ll be talking about him long after we’re gone. ”

That’s true, and perhaps no one has captured Lemieux’s importance to the Penguins better than Farber.

“Ruth and Russell are pretty good company,” Farber said. “Even if you just want to watch hockey, you come to Wayne, like you always do when you talk about Mario. But Wayne belonged to the sport.

‘Mario belongs to the penguins. And he has done that since he finally put on that jersey.”

Lemieux wore the Penguins patch a few days after the 1984 NHL Draft. It features a photo of him standing atop Mount Washington, with the Pittsburgh skyline in the background.

Johnston loves that photo.

“Mario, wearing our jersey, our city – that’s all you see, and it’s perfect,” he said.

(Top photo: Allsport/Getty Images)