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E.M. Swift
October 15, 1984
The pitiful Penguins figure that they'll be a lot higher in the NHL pecking order now that their prize draft pick, Mario Lemieux, is in their nest
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October 15, 1984

Pittsburgh Lands A Rare Bird

The pitiful Penguins figure that they'll be a lot higher in the NHL pecking order now that their prize draft pick, Mario Lemieux, is in their nest

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A group of investors then bought the club and two years later sold the controlling interest to Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., who said prophetically, "As an investment, a hockey team stinks." In 1982, after losing in overtime to the Stanley Cup champion Islanders in the fifth game of their best-of-five playoff series, the Penguins went into a death spiral that culminated in last year's miserable record, the worst in team history.

Pittsburgh's hockey fortunes turned when coach Johnston became general manager Johnston after Baz Bastien, who'd been the team's G.M., was killed in an automobile accident March 15, 1983. Johnston, with DeBartolo's blessing, put an end to the Penguins' ruinous practice of trading away first-round draft choices—which they had done in 1971, '72, '77, '78, '79, '81 and '83. For years, scouts and G.M.s had been positioning themselves for the 1984 draft, when Lemieux would become eligible. Back in '81, when Lemieux was 16, Montreal had traded Larouche to the Hartford Whalers for the Whalers' first pick in 1984 in the hope that it would land them their hometown boy. In everyone's estimation Lemieux was a player around whom you could build a franchise—a natural scorer, big, strong and highly skilled. A general manager might get a crack at someone like that once in a lifetime. Since the last-place team in the NHL has first pick in the draft, much of Johnston's energies last season apparently went toward seeing that the Penguins finished below the New Jersey Devils in the standings. On March 5 he traded his best defenseman, former Norris Trophy winner Randy Carlyle, to the Winnipeg Jets for a first-round draft choice and a player to be named later. Much later. He got Moe Mantha after the season. Johnston also sent Roberto Romano, the Penguins' best goalie in the latter part of the season, down to Pittsburgh's minor league team in Baltimore and replaced him with Vincent Tremblay, who allowed 24 goals in four games for a heady 6-gpg average. Johnston's shuffling worked. The Pens ended the season three points behind the Devils.

Lemieux, meanwhile, was shattering the junior scoring records of Mike Bossy, Pat LaFontaine, Larouche, Lafleur, you name him. The season before Lemieux joined the Laval team, it finished 10th and last in its league. It was seventh his first year. Laval won the league championship in his final two seasons, and in 70 games in 1983-84 Lemieux had 133 goals and 149 assists for 282 points—31 more than Larouche's single-season league record for the Sorel Black Hawks. And that season, average attendance at Laval home games rose from 1,100 to 2,200.

Dropping to his knees and pumping his arms after scoring a goal, Lemieux was a natural showman, and at the behest of his agents his uniform number was, as it still is, 66—99 upside down. Ninety-nine is worn by guess who. Lemieux was beginning to look like a big Gretzky. "He passes the puck as well as anyone but Gretzky," says Lou Nanne, G.M. of the Minnesota North Stars, who offered Johnston all 12 of his 1984 draft choices for a chance at Lemieux.

Some 3,000 Pittsburghers showed up to watch the drafting of Lemieux on June 9, an event that was shown in the Igloo on closed-circuit TV. Lemieux didn't exactly get off on the right foot with the fans when, on the advice of his agent, Gus Badali (who also handles Gretzky), he refused to hold up, much less don, a Penguin jersey and pose for the traditional photo. Contract negotiations were at a standstill, and Lemieux told reporters he didn't want to shake the hand of Eddie Johnston if Johnston didn't want to pay him what he was worth. That went over like a lead penguin. "I'll sign when Lemieux signs," shouted one season-ticket holder during the screening. It took just a week longer for Lemieux and the Penguins to come to terms—a reported $600,000 for two years, including a $150,000 signing bonus, and an option year at $150,000.

"I don't regret doing that," Lemieux says now. "One week later I had my contract, and the fans seem to have forgotten it. At least I hope so." Lemieux, the first French Canadian since Lafleur (1971) to be drafted No. 1 overall, speaks English well, if carefully. Three summers ago, on the advice of Badali, he took a Berlitz crash course. "He tells me to behave off the ice like Gretzky," says Lemieux, whose polite, self-effacing style mimes that of The Great One to a tee. Gretzky sponsors a celebrity tennis tournament every summer. So Lemieux—a six-handicap golfer—staged the Mario Lemieux Annual Celebrity Golf Tournament in June to benefit the Normand Leveille Foundation, which helps support the young Boston Bruin forward who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage between periods of an NHL game two years ago and is still partially paralyzed. The entry fee was, you've got it, $66.99. The event raised $6,000 for the foundation. Gretzky participated and shot an 83.

While Lemieux can ape Gretzky off the ice, he'll have a hard time keeping up with him in the arena. Lemieux is an adept skater—fast, even, once he gets going. But he has little of Gretzky's marvelous quickness. "The best thing for a player like Lemieux is to be moving all the time," says Nanne. "And he needs to dial his consistency up to a higher level to be great."

The Great One gives more of himself night in, night out than any other player in the league. He's obsessed with being the best. Lemieux has never shown that sort of drive, perhaps because he has never needed to. "We all know he has the talent to be a dominating player," says Haralson, "but what no one can say yet is, does he want to dominate the game? One thing I've noticed already, though, is he's always talking to players in practice, tapping them on the pads and such, veterans and rookies alike. That's a Gretzky trait. A born leader's got to be able to lead players 10 years older than he is."

Lemieux, whose very name means "the best," has been trying to maintain his equilibrium in the face of such comparisons. "I'm the kind of guy who isn't very nervous, who takes life as it comes," he says. "It isn't very fair to compare me to Wayne Gretzky. He's the greatest. I'll try to be the best, but it'll take me more than a year to do that."

It will take the Penguins more than a year, too, to reach the playoffs again—never mind contend for the Cup. It's still a long, dark tunnel. But there's something up ahead. Call it the Lemieux Lumi�re.

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