He was big and strong but rarely had to bully his way through defenders, sending them flying instead with deft fakes and dekes. In him, the attributes of the pure scorer and the playmaker were fused and his size, reach and balance made his end-to-end rushes seem effortless. In a few long strides, with a twist of those wide shoulders and quick change of direction, he found space on the ice where previously the way had been closed. Forced to choose between his accurate and heavy shot or his long arms reaching around them with a sweeping move, goalies were often left shaking their heads while they retrieved the puck from the net. Rarely has a sport's dominant player made the game look so easy and natural.
A native of Montreal, Quebec, Lemieux (in French le mieux means "the best") was a sensational junior. He played for three seasons with the Laval Voisin in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. In his final year he surpassed his childhood hero, Guy Lafleur, for the honour of being the top goal scorer in one QJMHL season. He set the record in his last game - in which Laval crushed Longueuil 16-4 - by scoring six goals and adding six assists for good measure. He led the Voisin to the Memorial Cup Tournament and was named the Canadian Major Junior player of the year for his 133 goals and 282 points, a total that easily topped Pierre Larouche's points record of 251. He set a Canadian record with a consecutive points streak that lasted 62 games.
Lemieux was the most talked about young player in the game and was picked first overall in the 1984 Entry Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were looking for a natural goal scorer to improve their fortunes. The Penguins had finished dead last in each of the previous two seasons and desperately needed to increase interest in a declining market.
Lemieux responded to the challenge immediately. In his first shift in a regular-season game, he stole the puck from Boston's star defenseman Ray Bourque and moved in on goalie Pete Peeters. With a quick flick of his wrist, with his first shot on his first shift in his first game, he scored to announce himself to the league. In his home debut in Pittsburgh, he got an assist, again on his first shift, and won his first fight as well, using his amazing balance and reach to out-box Vancouver's Gary Lupul. He kept up the scoring pace that first year by becoming just the third rookie in league history to record 100 or more points. His 43 goals and 57 assists placed him behind only Dale Hawerchuk and Peter Statsny for all-time best rookie seasons. He was selected as the most valuable player in the All-Star Game, the perfect venue for his skills to shine, and Magnificent Mario easily won the Calder Trophy for top rookie in 1984-85. He ended his first professional year at the World Championships in Prague, leading Canada to a surprise victory over the Soviet Union en route to a silver medal.
Pittsburgh moved up 15 points in the standings, not enough to make the playoffs, but the excitement and increased attendance saved the franchise, something no other superstar had been looked upon to do so early in his career.
Lemieux had over 100 points in each of his next two seasons, but his first real claim to the status of the game's best player came in 1987. He played for the NHL in the Rendez-vous series at the All-Star break, and then played a crucial role for the home team in the Canada Cup. He collected 18 points in nine games, none of them more timely or important than his series-winning goal against the Soviet Union in the final game. Lemieux tucked in behind Wayne Gretzky in the dying seconds, and when Gretzky slid a perfect pass back to him, he snapped a quick shot under the crossbar, starting off a wild celebration. In the following season, he outdistanced every scorer in the league - though Gretzky was injured - with 168 points to win the Art Ross and the Hart trophies as the league's top scorer and most valuable player.
On December 31, 1988, Lemieux put on what most people think was the greatest individual scoring performance in NHL history. He scored five goals in a game in five different ways: an even-strength goal, a power-play goal, a shorthanded goal, a penalty shot goal and an empty-net goal. No one had ever done that before and no one has yet done it since. He went on to finish the 1988-89 season with 85 goals and 199 points to lead the league for the second consecutive season, this time beating a healthy Gretzky outright. His total points record that season was the only one ever to approach the 200-plus range inhabited by Gretzky earlier in his career on four occasions. Still, one of the criticisms leveled against Lemieux in these early years was that he would need to win a Stanley Cup to be considered one of the all-time greats. Lemieux took that challenge in stride after a few difficult seasons with injuries. He first experienced trouble with his back during the 1989-90 season. The next year he missed most of the season before returning late to help a young Jaromir Jagr and some able veterans, including Larry Murphy and Paul Coffey, and in time for the playoffs. With Lemieux picking up 44 points in 23 games to capture the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' top performer, Pittsburgh won its first Stanley Cup with a six-game victory over Minnesota. The next season, Lemieux repeated as the Smythe winner and Pittsburgh once again cheered a championship season, winning 11 games in a row to end the playoffs and claim the Stanley Cup.
Though now at the top of the game, Lemieux was known as a spectacular but enigmatic player with a reticent personality and a dislike for the spotlight that felt very uncomfortable for him. Serious back problems and his struggle with Hodgkin's disease combined to prevent him from ever playing a full season. His battle with this form of cancer included radiation treatments in 1992-93, when he missed a full month midway through the season before returning to lead the league again in scoring. He sat out 62 games in 1993-94 and the entire 1994-95 season because
of health problems.
Other players who had missed games through injury were incredulous that the 6'4" 210-pound Lemieux could be away from the game for so long and then return to be the same dominating player as ever. He won the Hart and the Art Ross in 1995-96 after sitting out a full year. For Pens fans and lovers of offensive hockey, the retirement of the Magnificent One in 1997 marked a sad time in the history of the game. About the only ones not shedding any tears, it
seemed, were those fearful goalies.
In the summer of 1999 the Pittsburgh team was mired in financial difficulty, facing bankruptcy and the possible transfer of the team. Lemieux, owed millions in deferred salary, stepped in as the head of an ownership group to buy the team and keep it in Pittsburgh, where he continued to live with his family.
Then, late in 2000 he announced that he would be making a come-back as a player, becoming only the third Honoured Member (the other two being Gordie Howe and Guy Lafleur) to play in the NHL. On December 27, 2000, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mario Lemieux returned to the ice, and showed that he was still one of the greatest the game has ever seen, as he scored one goal and added two assists in that first game back. Lemieux continued his scoring exploits. In spite of his injury woes, Lemieux was named captain of Canada's Winter Olympic entry for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. His poise and production led Canada to Olympic Gold. Unfortunately the rigors of the Olympic schedule ended Lemieux's 2001-02 NHL season.
He returned in 2002-03 and held a clear lead in points by the mid-way mark of the season. Once again injuries curtailed his games played and mobility. To make matters worse, Lemieux was forced to trade away his high-priced teammates, and any chance of winning the Art Ross Trophy, to preserve the financial stability of Pittsburgh Penguin hockey.
With injuries plaguing his once-brilliant career, and with the burden of the Penguins' financial woes preying on his mind, Lemieux was mid-way through the 2005-06 season when he decided to retire on January 24, 2006. Mario had played 26 games, scoring 7 times and assisting on 15 more at the time of his retirement.
His final career totals include 915 regular season games played, scoring 690 goals and assisting on 1,033 more for 1,723 points, and set him apart from all but a handful able to lay claim to being one of the greatest players ever to play the game.