Mario Lemieux: NHL's All-Time Great Leaders, Part III

Matt Eichel@@mattyalloutSenior Writer IMay 29, 2008

Take a look back in Stanley Cup history to those captains who led their team to greatness while achieving both personal and team-oriented goals.  For all the Conn Smythe-winning captains to the one's who led by example to let other stars rise to the challenge.

In this third segment, we take a look at one of the game's greatest stars and inspirational leaders, Mario Lemieux.

Mario Lemeiux  (1984-85 - 1996-97 & 2000-01 - 2005-06)

Growing up in a working class family in Montreal, Mario Lemieux began practicing hockey at age 3 in his basement.  The youngest of three boys, he and his brothers would play hockey with wooden kitchen spoons for sticks and bottlecaps for hockey pucks.

Family legend is that sometimes they would pack snow onto the living room carpet so Mario and his brothers could practice inside when it got dark outside.

From this upbringing, Lemieux started his career at age 15 when he was drafted by the Laval Voisins of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.  Lemieux began to turn heads in the hockey world, as he scored 96 points in 64 games in his rookie season.

He would go on to score 184 points in 66 games his second season and break Guy Lafleur's record by scoring 282 points in 70 games the next season.  

Into the playoffs, Lemieux also performed well scoring 84 points in only 26 playoff games, averaging over two goals a game in the 1983-84 playoffs.  Truly, the game's next superstar was just on the horizon.

Lemieux refused to play in the 1984 World Juniors due to a dislike for Canadian coach Dave King from the way he treated Lemieux during the 1983 tournament. Lemieux ended his junior career with 562 points in three seasons.

With such numbers, Lemieux was a no-brainer to go first overall in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft and that he did.  Going first overall to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Lemieux vowed to play for whoever picked him.

Yet, Lemieux and the Penguins' contract negotiations led to Lemieux not showing up for the draft, which was held in Montreal.  Over 3,000 Penguins fans viewed the draft at Mellon Arena, which was averaging an attendance of about 7,000 during the 1980s.

Eventually Lemieux signed and his NHL career began.

And it began with a bang. On Oct. 11, 1984, Lemieux scored his first goal on his first shot on his first shift versus Pete Peeters of the Boston Bruins.  In his rookie season, Lemieux would capture the Calder Trophy with scoring 100 points as a rookie and participated in the NHL All-Star Game. He also became the first rookie to be named the All-Star Game MVP.

His sophomore campaign did not disappoint either, as Lemieux finished second in league scoring with 141 points, second only to Wayne Gretzky's NHL-record 215 points.  Despite the difference in points between the two, Lemieux won the Lester B. Pearson Award as voted by his peers.

Lemieux missed 17 games the following 1986-87 season, and the Penguins again missed the playoffs.  Yet, Lemieux teamed up with Gretzky in the 1987 Canada Cup as Lemieux would score the game winning goal in Game 3 against the Soviets with only 1:26 remaining in the third period.  It would be the first remarkable accomplishment for Lemieux on the world stage. His heroics put him as one of the most clutch players in hockey.

Entering the 1987-88 season, Gretzky had owned the Art Ross Trophy, winning it seven consecutive times.  However, Lemieux, fueled by the 1987 Canada Cup win, took home his first Art Ross with 168 points.

Along with the Art Ross, Lemieux captured the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league's most valuable player to his team and also picked the All-Star Game MVP once again with a record-setting six-point game.  Despite all his accomplishments, the Penguins, once again, missed the postseason dance.

Lemieux kept on getting better.  During the 1988-89 season, Lemieux led the league in goals (85), tied with Gretzky in assists (114), and led the league in points (199).

With this season, Lemieux became the only player to come close to Gretzky's 200-point plateau, he became the second player to score 70+ goal seasons in two seasons, and the fourth player to score 50 goals in 50 games.  Along with 13 shorthanded goals, Lemieux finished a close to Gretzky in Hart Trophy voting that season.

During the 88-89 season, Lemieux capped a feat against the New Jersey Devils that showed his true skill and leadership.  He netted eight points while scoring goals in every situation possible in the game: power-play, short-handed, even strength, penalty shot, and an empty netter.

During the playoffs, Lemieux had another five-goal game in a 10-7 win of Philadelphia which tied the record for most goals and points in a postseason game, most goals in a postseason period (four in the first), and most assists in a postseason period (three in the second).

The Penguins were gaining strength with deft acquisitions that bolstered a strong, young lineup around star and now captain Mario Lemieux.  The next season, Lemieux scored at least one point in 46 consecutive games, second only to Gretzky's 51 game point streak.  That season, he won his third All-Star Game MVP, yet injuries were getting to the Penguins star come the 1990-91 season.

On July 11, 1990, Lemieux underwent back surgery and would miss 50 games that season.  Pittsburgh brought in the likes of Ulf Samuelsson, Ron Francis, and Larry Murphy to bolster the lineup in Lemieux's absence.

After coming back from surgery, Lemieux showed his true leadership as he led the talented Penguins to the finals against the upstart Minnesota North Stars. Lemieux would go on to take home the Conn Smythe Trophy as he led the playoff scoring with 16 goals and 28 assists, despite back problems.

The next season, Lemieux managed to play 64 games in the regular season. Even despite his injuries, he managed to capture the Art Ross with 131 points. In the playoffs, in the Patrick Division Finals, Adam Graves slashed and broke Lemieux's wrist forcing the Penguins superstar to miss five games.

Still, Lemieux led the playoffs in scoring with 16 goals and 18 assists and led Pittsburgh to their second consecutive Stanley Cup. Lemieux won another Conn Smythe Trophy.

Lemieux's perseverance was truly a testament to his teammates and to his leadership, yet his greatest test was ahead of him.

The 1992-93 season started out great for Lemieux.  He was on pace to crack Gretzky's record of 92 goals and 215 points until he shocked the hockey world with his announcement that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Lemieux underwent radio-active therapy and was forced to miss two months.

When he returned to play the Flyers in Philadelphia, he was only 12 points behind Pat Lafontaine for the scoring lead and notched a goal and an assist in his return and earned a standing ovation from the Philadelphia faithful.

With Lemieux's return, Pittsburgh went on a tear, winning a record 17 consecutive games to finish first overall.  Lemieux was scoring at a pace of 2.67 points per game, third behind Gretzky's records in the early 80s.  Lemieux also won his second straight and fourth Art Ross with 160 points, beating Lafontaine out by 12 points.

Yet the Penguins hopes for a three-peat were put to rest as they were bounced by the New York Islanders in overtime of Game 7.  Still, Lemieux was awarded another Lester B. Pearson award and the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.

For a second time, Lemieux underwent back surgery, this time to repair a herniated disc.  He would end up missing 58 games that season with back complications.  After that season, he announced he was going to take a leave of absence from the game of hockey.

Still, Lemieux returned for the 1995-96 season and on Oct. 29, 1995, notched his 500th career goal in only his 605th game to become the second fastest player to 500 goals, next to Gretzky (500 goals in 575 games).  He would finish the season with 69 goals and 92 assists to lead the league again in scoring.  He became the seventh player to win three Hart Trophies and the fourth player to win five Art Ross Trophies.

Lemieux continued to dominate scoring his 600th goal in his 719th game the next season and winning another scoring title with 122 points, his tenth career 100-point season.  Yet, the Penguins were once again eliminated in the first round and after the season, Lemieux retired.

He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame that November, becoming only the ninth player to have the mandatory three-year period waived.

The Penguins continued to have money issues, with backlogged salaries coming back to haunt them.  Deferred salaries were a nightmare for the owners and they eventually claimed bankruptcy once again in November 1998.

Once again, as he did in 1984, Lemieux saved the Penguins by buying the majority of the team due to him being the largest creditor of the Penguins due to the millions of dollars in deferred salaries.

As the Penguins sulked along and provided winning season with the likes of Alex Kovalev, Martin Straka, and Jaromir Jagr, there were rumblings during 2000 that Lemieux was thinking about a comeback.

And so it became official as Lemieux returned against the Toronto Maple Leafs on December 27, 2000.  Lemieux didn't disappoint, scoring a goal and adding two assists.  Despite missing 43 points, Lemieux finished with 76 points to put his 26th in NHL scoring.  He was also a finalist for the Hart Trophy and Lester B. Pearson award.

Once again, injuries would limit Lemieux's playing time. In 2001-02, he would only play 24 games and 10 games during the 2003-04 season.  In 2002-03, Lemieux led the league in scoring for much of the season until back problems put him out of commission and he finished eighth in scoring with 92 points in only 67 games.

On December 23, 2002, he was dared to score a goal off a face-off by a Pittsburgh afternoon radio show host who would donate $66,000 to the Mario Lemieux Foundation. Mario made good on the dare.

Lemieux's leadership would show up once again during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.  Captaining a juggernaut Canadian squad, Lemieux would notch 6 points in 5 tournament games as Canada would capture gold for the first time in 50 years.  Lemieux's inspired play helped Canada to reach the top of the world in 2002.

After the Olympics and another bunch of early playoff exits and injuries, he lock-out seemed to slow Lemieux down even more.  After the lockout, Lemieux only managed to play 26 games, where he would notch 22 points.  After that, Lemieux announced his final retirement at age 40. Despite his retirement in 2005-06, the Penguins future was looking up as their first overall pick in Sidney Crosby was now the new face of the team.

Lemieux's career is filled up to the brim with accolades, awards, and stories of perseverance and courage. He is one of the ultimate leaders, one in a class all of his own.

Lemieux would score 10 100+ point seasons, six 50+ goal seasons, five 90+ assist seasons, and would finish one point shy of 200 points during the 1988-89 season.  His playoff performance speaks volumes for his leadership where he scored 76 goals and 96 assists for 172 points in 107 games!

Lemieux would also score 14 goals and nine assists for 23 points in only 10 All-Star Game appearances, capturing three MVP awards.

Despite injuries, Lemieux's career could have been better, yet he still put up impressive numbers despite his ailing conditions at times.  A superb leader, Mario Lemieux stands as an all-time great.

Mario Lemieux Season Stats (915 GP, 690 Goals, 1033 Assists, 1723 Points)

Mario Lemieux Playoff Stats (107 GP, 76 Goals, 96 Assists, 172 Points)

7th All-Time Points (1723)

9th All-Time Goals (690)

10th All-Time Assists (1033)

14th All-Time Playoff Points (172)

Awards & Accomplishments:

Stanley Cup - 1991 & 1992

Conn Smythe Trophy - 1991 & 1992

Hart Memorial Trophy - 1988, 1993, 1996

Art Ross Trophy - 1988, 1989, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997

Lester B. Pearson Award - 1986, 1988, 1993, 1996

Calder Memorial Trophy - 1985

Bill Masterton Trophy - 1993

Amassed 39 Points (18 Goals, 21 Assists) in 29 Senior International Games from Olympics to World Championships

NHL Plus/Minus Award - 1993

Chrysler-Dodge Performer of the Year - 1985, 1986, 1987

NHL All-Star Game MVP - 1985, 1988, 1990

NHL First All-Star Team - 1988, 1989, 1993, 1996, 1997

NHL Second All-Star Team - 1986, 1987, 1992, 2001

NHL All-Rookie Team - 1985

ESPN Hockey Player of the Decade - 2000

ESPY Award NHL Player of the Year - 1993, 1994, 1998

Lou Marsh Trophy - 1993

Ranked #4 on the Hockey News' List of 100 Greatest Players




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