The Best I Ever Saw

Excerpt from Just Watch the Game:

Mario Lemieux has come a long way. He’s not only the owner of the franchise that drafted him with the first overall pick in 1984, he looks like the quintessential team owner. Hell, he has the look of a distinguished United States senator.

Not bad for a kid who never finished high school.

I remember the first time I met him in June of 1984. He had just arrived in Pittsburgh for the first time and my brother Paul, who was working in marketing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, had picked him up at the airport and given me the scoop on where he was staying.

I wasn’t working that night, but I called the assignment desk at WTAE-TV and told them to have a cameraman meet me downtown in the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel (now the Marriott). I brought my 12-year-old hockey-playing son Brett along with me, and we met Lemieux in the Hyatt lobby. He was about three months away from his 19th birthday, skinny, very shy, and spoke very little English. I didn’t get much out of him, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was giving the people of Pittsburgh their first look at the kid who was going to save a franchise.

Who knew he would have to save it three times?

Mario Lemieux was a big deal at the time, but only to the extent that a hockey player could be a big deal in Pittsburgh. Despite what the official attendance figures may have shown, in 1983-84 the Penguins averaged about 6,000 fans per game, and very few games were televised. They were the fourth or fifth most important team in town behind the Steelers, Pirates, Pitt football and probably Pitt basketball. There was nothing near the media frenzy over Lemieux’s arrival that would happen in a similar situation in 2014.

A few months later, the Penguins opened their training camp at the Mt. Lebanon ice arena. They had been using the suburban facility for years as a practice rink during the season, and on most days 10 fans would have been a big crowd. It became obvious right away that Lemieux had changed things. The Penguins opened their first scrimmage to the public and it was standing-room only, with people being turned away at the door. Early in the scrimmage, Lemieux had the crowd roaring when he made a ridiculous pass to Rick Kehoe, who turned it into a goal.

It was one of those “all you had to see” moments. It became obvious in the first few minutes of the scrimmage that this skinny 18-year-old kid was the best player on the ice, and whoever was second wasn’t even close.

I went back to WTAE and told the sports producer, Tim Kiely, that, right now, this kid may be the most exciting athlete in Pittsburgh. Tim told me to calm down, but he hadn’t seen the kid play yet.

By the start of the season everybody knew that Lemieux was something special, and he really got a buzz going when he scored a goal on opening night in Boston on his first shift.

Hockey fans knew right away that this kid had “from another planet” qualities, but he was a hockey player, and that meant that a huge portion of local sports fans would take a long time to realize how special he was.

I remember doing a commentary on KDKA-TV in 1986 telling people who hadn’t taken the time to watch Lemieux that they needed to start paying attention. I remember saying, “He’s Babe Ruth. He’s Jimmy Brown. We’re talking about a guy who is going to be one of the all-time greats in his sport.”  I can also remember getting the feeling that some of the people on the set and in the newsroom thought I was getting carried away.

They were like so many other sports fans. They didn’t understand or like hockey, and the Penguins had never won anything. They weren’t able to appreciate how special Lemieux was, that he wasn’t just another good or even great young player, but a once-in-a-lifetime transformational superstar.

Sometime in 1986 I wrote in my weekly Post-Gazette column that the greatest hockey player in the world was no longer living in Edmonton. I wrote that he was living in Pittsburgh. I took some heat for that, too. It wouldn’t be the last time I was accused of going overboard in my assessment of Mario Lemieux.

Pretty soon, things began to change in the newsroom at KDKA. People who had never paid attention to hockey started tuning the monitors in their cubicles to Penguins telecasts. Lemieux would turn a defender inside out and score a spectacular goal, and you could hear shouts of disbelief coming from some of the people who had rolled their eyes when I had compared him to Babe Ruth.

By 1986 or 1987 Lemieux was the most exciting athlete in Pittsburgh, and whoever was second (probably Louis Lipps of the Steelers) wasn’t close.

Here’s a statement that will still get some eyes rolling:  Mario Lemieux is the best player in a team sport that I have ever seen. That’s right.

Better than Joe Montana.

Better than Jimmy Brown.

Better than Walter Payton.

Better than Barry Bonds and, yeah, better than Michael Jordan.

I cannot imagine any player in any sport being better than Lemieux was in the 1988-89 season, when he finished with 199 points.  That was 16 points shy of the record set by Wayne Gretzky in 1985-86.

Gretzky wins the stats argument over Lemieux hands-down, but in hockey you get a point for an assist and to get an assist, the guy on the other end of your pass has to score a goal.

Everybody knows that Gretzky played with Hall of Famers when he set the record of 215 points (52 goals and 163 assists). Lemieux played on a line with Rob Brown who, without Lemieux, was a marginal NHL player and Bob Errey, who was a very good two-way player but never scored more than the 26 goals he did in that 1988-89 season playing on Lemieux’s wing.

Michael Jordan was pretty good, too. I like to call him the Mario Lemieux of the NBA. Jordan played in a league that relaxed its rules on traveling and palming the ball to allow him to shine.

And sell tickets.

Lemieux played in a league that went out of its way not to enforce the rules on interference and holding that would have allowed him to shine.

And sell tickets.

And get a few more games on national TV.

I’m here to tell you that if Lemieux had played on that Oilers team with Jari Kuri, Glenn Anderson, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey, he would have scored at least 250 points.

I can’t prove it. All I can do is tell you that I saw Lemieux play that season, and I have never seen a player dominate games the way he did night-in and night-out. I really don’t believe any player in major professional sports has ever been as dominant as Lemieux was in 1988-89, when he had 85 goals and 114 assists in 76 games.

And, again, he did it while having to fight through clutching and grabbing that was supposed to be illegal. He also had to deal with Neanderthal referees who thought that, because Lemieux was so big, it was only fair to let the smaller guys bend the rules to even things out.

You know, kind of like the way the NBA treated Wilt Chamberlin.

Lemieux scored a lot of spectacular, timely goals, but if I had to pick out one goal that I’ll always remember, it came at the end of a season in which the Penguins didn’t make the playoffs.

It was Saturday, April 2, 1988, in Washington. It was the second-to-last game of the season, and the Penguins were in a situation where they had to win their last two games and get help from some other teams to make the playoffs.

Lemieux scored three goals and dominated the game as usual, but at the end of regulation the score was 6-6. The Penguins’ coach, Pierre Creamer, mistakenly thought that they only had to tie the game to stay alive for the playoffs. The players knew otherwise.

I was sitting in the press box, which was at ice level, directly behind the goal being defended by the Capitals in overtime. Eddie Johnston, the Penguins general manager, was the only other person sitting there, and he was right next to me.  During the game I got great commentary from E.J., but the best comments didn’t come from his mouth. They came from his elbows.

Every time Lemieux did something ridiculous, which was often, E.J. would just give me four or five quick jabs in the ribs. He knew the Penguins had to win, and with less than a minute left in overtime, Lemieux picked up the puck in his own end and headed up the ice toward us. As he came across the blue line, two defensemen and goalie Pete Peeters were waiting for him. Somehow, Lemieux’s skates (probably illegally) were cut out from under him. As he slid on his back toward the goal, he managed to get the blade of his stick under the puck and flip it up behind Peeters and under the crossbar.

Game over. Penguins win 7-6.

E.J. gave me one last hard jab in the ribs, jumped up, said, “He’s the best fuckin’ player in the world,” and headed for the locker room.

It was a spectacular goal, but it was more than that. It was the culmination of one of the best examples I had ever seen of a player taking his team on his shoulders and not allowing it to lose. It was also the last minute of a game that they had to win in order to make the playoffs for the first time in five years. (As it turned out, despite also winning their last game, the Penguins fell short.)

I went to the locker room to do the post-game interviews, and after I was finished I did something I had never done before and haven’t done since. I went looking for Lemieux without a camera in tow and, when I caught up to him walking out of the locker room, I stopped him, stuck out my hand and said, “I just want to tell you something. I have never seen anything that comes close to what you did out there today.”

He gave me the Lemieux Nod and said, “Thanks.”