Before Kane and Toews or Crosby and Ovechkin, there was Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Arguably (at least if you don't ask Gordie Howe or Bobby Orr) the two greatest hockey players to ever take the ice in any league, on any rink, in any corner of the world. But who is better?
Here are six reasons why the equation 66 > 99 might not have been true in your sixth grade Algebra class, but it holds true in hockey history.
6. I'll take Warren Young and Mike Bullard, you can have Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and Grant Fuhr.
The caliber of teammates that Gretzky enjoyed playing with early in his career vastly attributed to his success. I'm not saying that without Messier, Gretzky wouldn't have won a Hart or an Art Ross Trophy, I'm just saying he might not have won as many.
If a team decided to concentrate on "99" for the night, no problem, he'd just dish it off to Messier. Close in a tight game, Wayne didn't have to press to get that insurance goal, he could just dump the puck in and watch Grant Fuhr carry the team to victory.
It wasn't until the arrival of Mark Recchi to Pittsburgh in the early 90's that Lemieux had another all-star caliber player to play with. This lack of another star teammate enabled teams to double-team Mario on every shift.
Not to mention that by the time Mario arrived in Pittsburgh in 1984, relocation was on the tip of every member of the Penguins' management team as attendance continued to fall year after year.
Despite being relied on to carry the load, Lemieux posted five 100-plus point seasons, won the Calder Memorial Trophy, a Hart, a Lester B. Pearson, an Art Ross, and three All-Star game MVP's by 1990.
5. Five Goals, Five Different Ways
On December 31, 1988, Lemieux became the first (and only) player in NHL history to score a goal in every possible game situation in the same game. Lemieux netted an even strength goal, scored on the power play, scored shorthanded, converted on a penalty shot, and added an empty netter to cap off a five goal, eight point performance.
What's even better? It was against the Devils.
4. Injuries? No Problem
Everyone knows that Mario battled injuries throughout his career, while Gretzky remained relatively healthy during his. But here's a few things you might not know...
In July, 1990, Lemieux underwent back surgery and was forced to miss 50 games during the 1990-91 season. Despite significant pain, Lemieux was back for the playoffs. Mario scored 44 points (16 goals, 28 assists), leading all scorers in the playoffs, and more importantly, leading the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup.
The following season, Lemieux played in just 64 games, but still won the Art Ross Trophy with 131 points. Gretzky played in 74 games with the Kings that year, finishing with 121 points. Oh, but he probably was battling a stuffy nose for a good chunk of the winter.
During the same '91-'92 season, New York Ranger Adam Graves etched his name at the top of every Penguin fans' hit list by slashing, and breaking Lemieux's wrist during the Division Finals. Mario missed five games, but still led all scorers with 16 goals and 18 assists, as the Penguins won their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
3. "66" Saves the Pens, Gretzky's Coyotes Watch the Playoffs From Their Couches
So what have these guys done since hanging up the skates for the final time? Well, let's see...
Lemieux has secured the Penguins a new arena in Pittsburgh, complete with a 30-year lease. He has had a hand in developing the game's newest star, Sidney Crosby, and he's even acted as Sid's landlord during his first three years in Pittsburgh.
Under the ownership of Lemieux, the Penguins have reached the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, and the Stanley Cup Finals last season.
Big Wayne, on the other hand, has checked wife Janet into Gambler's Anonymous, and has failed to lead the Coyotes, as owner or head coach, to a 40-win season, or the playoffs in three attempts. Things may be starting to look up for the Coyotes, but if I were a bettin' man—nah, that's just too easy.
2. You Wanna Talk Stats? Here Are Your Stats
Despite playing in 572 fewer games than Gretzky, Lemieux holds the record for the highest career points-per-game average (2.005) and the highest career goals-per-game average (.823). While the title of "greatest" player is debatable, the title of "most productive" player is not.
Per-game averages, in my opinion tell the true tale of a players' greatness. These stats tell the true tale—when Mario was on the ice, he was the best. How can all those people who frequently point out statistics as a way to determine the greatest individual player in a certain sport ignore these stats?
1. Gretzky Beats Bruins to win Fourth Stanley Cup, Mario Beats Cancer
You'd be hard pressed to find one person today who hasn't known someone that has been diagnosed with some form of cancer. You've all heard the horror stories of radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
My grandfather battled cancer for five years before passing away at the age of 70. You all know what it does to a person's spirit, their family, and their friends. So, when you hear stories of men and women who have won the battle against cancer, you can't help but be filled with admiration.
On January 12, 1993, Mario Lemieux announced that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a rare, but treatable form of cancer. The city of Pittsburgh, and the entire hockey world were shaken by the news. A player at the pinnacle of his young career must now face the reality that he may never play hockey again.
Mario underwent radiation treatments and remained off of the ice for over a month. Surprisingly, the king of comebacks would strike once again.
On the day of his final radiation treatment, Lemieux boarded a plane to Philadelphia where he took the ice with his teammates against the Philadelphia Flyers. Mario scored a goal and added an assist in the game, and received a standing ovation from Flyer fans after the game. Coming from the fan-base that once boo'd Santa Clause, that is quite an accomplishment.
The Penguins won an NHL record 17 consecutive games after Lemieux's return, enabling them to win the President's Trophy for the first time in their history.
Despite playing in just 60 games that season, Mario beat out Pat LaFontaine by 12 points to win the fourth scoring title of his career.
So, whether you think that Gretzky's statistical advantage outweighs Mario's more productive numbers, or that Mario's raw talent, speed, and size made him the most dominant player in NHL history, there really is no "right" way of measuring the greatness of an athlete.
Penguins' fans can only admire Mario's courage, boast of his dedication to the Penguins and the city of Pittsburgh, marvel at a career that earned him the title "Le Magnifique", and stubbornly believe that 66 is indeed greater than 99.
Posted in full at: Experiencing the Evolution