That, ultimately, should be the signature for No. 66’s career. He wasn’t the most prolific, like Wayne Gretzky. He didn’t revolutionize the game, like Bobby Orr. He didn’t rule the sport for a quarter-century, like Gordie Howe. But Lemieux brought a combination of size and speed, skill and smarts, finesse and finish, Jean Beliveau-level grace and championship-level grit. And when put together, it was the likes of which the game has never seen before or since inside a single sweater.
Lemieux was exactly what his surname means in his native French: the best.
I’m a born-and-bred Pittsburgher. I was lucky enough to cover Lemieux’s career, one that’s almost universally acknowledged to have exceeded even those of Steeltown baseball legends Honus Wagner and Roberto Clemente, football treasures ‘Mean’ Joe Greene and Terry Bradshaw and, for that matter, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jaromir Jagr in Lemieux’s own sport.
I’ve also come to know the man off the ice. The impassioned owner who has added three Stanley Cup rings in that role to the two as team captain in 1991 and ’92. The tireless philanthropist who has committed – along with wife Nathalie – to building children’s playrooms inside local hospitals. The loving father to four children. The loyal friend, helping alumni in need for decades. He’s the ultimate athlete, the ultimate Pittsburgher. And I can’t help, in that context, but bring bias to this conversation.
But here’s what I won’t bring: numbers.
Oh, I could rattle off that his 1.883 points per game is the second-highest in NHL history, trailing only Gretzky’s 1.921, and he achieved that despite a dismal supporting cast his first half-decade – zero playoff appearances – unlike Gretzky’s Hall of Fame teammates in Edmonton. Add to that Lemieux’s bouts with cancer and crippling back pain that limited him to 572 fewer games than Gretzky, the equivalent of nearly seven full seasons. And that Lemieux entering the league five years after Gretzky exposed him to a much more challenging NHL, with international players arriving, goalie equipment getting bigger and the New Jersey Devils and other teams adopting defensive postures.
Durability is part of any sport, and Gretzky deserves credit for that. But the gap in games, the Oilers’ vastly superior supporting cast in his early tenure and the slight difference in eras are all that Gretzky has ever had on Lemieux numerically on a per-game basis. So, again, forget the numbers. What matters is what made Lemieux the best. And since Gretzky is more broadly perceived to have been better, the head-to-head comparison is the only way to build a case. It’s academic, too:
> Lemieux had a stronger, harder, more accurate shot. The legendary Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov called Lemieux the greatest goal-scorer he’d ever seen after Lemieux’s iconic goal in the 1987 Canada Cup – with a Gretzky assist, magically enough. And Lemieux could finish so many different ways, whether from the power-play point, or with breakaway moves that Gretzky never had, or, upon emerging from retirement, a deadly one-timer from the left side that (almost) reminded of Brett Hull.
> Lemieux’s 6-foot-4 stature dwarfed six-foot Gretzky’s, though that sometimes worked against Lemieux in that he was an easier target for physical abuse. He made extraordinary use of his size with what one Pittsburgh sportswriter called his “pterodactyl-like reach,” as well as using it to boost his seamless stride. Not to mention the occasional bit of nastiness.
> Lemieux was a faster, smoother skater, even with that extra size. Once he got going, he wasn’t caught. Gretzky’s skating strength was in his shiftiness.
> Lemieux had mesmerizing stickhandling and 1-on-1 skills. Gretzky couldn’t come close in this regard. One would go right at defenders, the other would curl and survey the scene.
> Lemieux had vision either approaching or equal to Gretzky’s, as well as a passing touch to match. This one, to me, always nullified the arguments comparing the two, as it was easily Gretzky’s most brilliant trait but one that Lemieux routinely rivalled.
> Lemieux didn’t always care to play defense, but when he did, no less an authority than Scotty Bowman called him the best defensive forward he’d ever coached. Defense was seldom sought from Gretzky.
If Lemieux is the most talented player ever – and since he was more talented than Gretzky, he absolutely was – then that’s what carves out his own special, iconic place in the annals of the game. Maybe he can wave to those three anointed Mount Rushmore fixtures from across the figurative valley. — Dejan Kovacevic
And he was one of the best the game has ever seen, the most prolific goal-scorer of his generation. He became the first NHLer to score 50 goals in 50 games in 1944-45, a feat that wasn’t duplicated until Mike Bossy in 1980-81. Richard finished his career with 544 goals, which was the all-time NHL record until he was passed by players who benefitted from longer seasons, curved sticks and talent pools diluted by expansion. He won the Stanley Cup eight times and led the league in goal-scoring on five occasions.
His legacy was recognized by the NHL in 1999 when the Montreal Canadiens donated the Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy to be presented annually to the league’s leading goal-scorer.
But to millions of Quebecers, Richard was more than a hockey player. While he insisted that was apolitical, he became a symbol of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, the social and political movement of the 1950s which saw French-Canadians push for a greater role in the economic and political life of the province.
Richard’s role in that movement stemmed from an incident which he regretted for the rest of his life. On March 13, 1955, Boston’s Hal Laycoe hit Richard in the head with his stick, and the fiery Richard retaliated. When linesman Cliff Thompson tried to intervene, Richard pushed him.
With his fierce determination and quick temper, Richard had run afoul of NHL president Clarence Campbell on several occasions and was suspended or fined. Richard once accused Campbell of an anti-French bias in a column he wrote for a French-language newspaper, and Campbell made him post a $1,000 good-conduct bond. This time, Campbell brought the hammer down and suspended Richard the remainder of the regular season and playoffs.
Campbell’s decision led to what became known as the Richard Riot. Campbell attended a game between Montreal and Detroit at the Forum March 17, 1955. The game was abandoned after fans pelted Campbell with tomatoes and other objects. Angry fans poured into the streets and went on a rampage, breaking store windows and creating havoc as they marched down Ste. Catherine Street.
Richard went on the radio the following morning and urged fans to be calm. He said he accepted his punishment and that he would return the following season to lead the team to a Stanley Cup. It was a promise he would keep.
There was no Cup for Montreal in 1955, however. The Canadiens lost to Detroit in a seven-game final. The Richard suspension also had an impact on the scoring race. Richard, who never won a scoring title, was the leader with 73 points when he was suspended. When teammate Bernie Geoffrion passed him in the final game of the season, the Montreal fans booed him and continued to jeer him through the playoffs.
It has been 58 years since Richard scored his last NHL goal, but he remains a mythical figure in Quebec.
One of Richard’s last public appearances was on March 11, 1996, at the closing of the Montreal Forum. After the Canadiens defeated the Dallas Stars 4-1, the sellout crowd was treated to a 45-minute ceremony celebrating the franchise’s history. There was a parade of Hall of Fame players. The likes of Guy Lafleur, Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Dickie Moore and coach Scotty Bowman were greeted with cheers, but the loudest ovation – and by far the longest – was for Richard. The length of the ovation was the subject of an instant debate. There were reports that it was 10, 12, 15 minutes long. In fact, it was a little more than seven minutes of high emotion. Richard appeared overwhelmed and at times embarrassed, as the roaring crowd ignored his pleas for silence.
The fans had one more chance to say goodbye to Richard after he died May 27, 2000. More than 115,000 people viewed his body as it lay in state at the Molson Centre for three days. More than 2,700 mourners ranging from Hall of Famers to politicians to ordinary fans jammed into Notre Dame Basilica for his funeral.
It was a departure worthy of an icon. — Pat Hickey
It wasn’t so much that his French became rusty as he got further removed from his two seasons playing in the QMJHL with Rimouski. In an honest and quiet moment away from the cameras, Crosby explained that if he misspoke in French and it came across as anything controversial, it could blow up and be a distraction to his Pittsburgh Penguins team.
Crosby, 31, Pittsburgh’s captain since he was 19 and with a sizeable hardware collection, is a special kind of elite player because he rose to the top with talent and grace under exponentially more scrutiny than the hockey stars of previous eras, thanks to the visual Autobahn that is the internet, especially social media.
That 21st-century technology has chronicled not only Crosby’s many hockey highlights, but also his clean-cut public persona, his charitable endeavors and his willingness to interact with fans. He is particularly drawn to children, military veterans and those with special needs.
There’s incredible competition to rank among hockey’s top faces of all-time. Maybe the mythical Mount Rushmore could be in Canada, and with the exchange rate we can get five faces instead of four? Either way, Crosby will leave a big enough indelible mark on the sport and its fans that he should get strong consideration for inclusion.
Among the center’s elite on-ice traits are his vision, speed, shot, backhand accuracy, ability to hold on to the puck, hand-eye co-ordination, playmaking, two-way play and his ability to make in-game adjustments. To name a few. “When Sid is at his very best, he is the best player in the game underneath the hash marks,” said Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan. “He might be the best player that ever played underneath the hash marks. He’s that good with the way he protects the puck and creates offense from below the goal line.”
Crosby entered the 2018-19 season ranked sixth all-time in career points per game at 1.292. Four of the five players ahead of him played in an abnormally high-scoring era. Even if Crosby’s numbers retreat a bit as he moves through his 30s – and he could maintain his pace or close to it if the Penguins provide him with wingers who can finish – he should retire as one of the supreme offensive players in league history, especially if you adjust for era. There should also be an adjustment, or at least a lot of recognition, for the way he plays a complete 200-foot game.
Crosby has only publicly committed to playing through the end of his contract, which runs through the 2024-25 season, when he’ll be 37. As long as he stays reasonably healthy, and even if his production slips in his mid-to-late 30s, by then he could eclipse 1,350 games, 500 goals and 1,600 points without the luxury playing in a high-scoring era.
Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who has coached Crosby with Team Canada at two Olympics as well as the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, has been a vocal fan for years. Early this season, Babcock was asked to name the game’s top player among Crosby and the NHL’s two rising young superstars, the Leafs’ Auston Matthews and the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid. “This is what I think,” Babcock said, “I think one guy’s got two Olympic gold medals and three Stanley Cups. How old is Sid, 31? (That’s) a young guy. Nick (Lidstrom, the Hall of Fame defenseman Babcock coached in Detroit) was, I thought, the best defenseman in the game at 40. You say the game’s changed quite a bit. He can still fly. I don’t think he plans on giving anything away.”
Babcock said Crosby’s team success puts him over the top: “To me, it’s not close.”
That’s just one testimonial. Crosby has assembled quite the collection of coaches and teammates who have watched him day after day and who gush about not only his skill but also his preparation, attention to detail and poise off the ice. If it’s been said once, it has been said 87,000 times that the Penguins are better because no one dares slack off when they see how hard Crosby works every day.
So many things make him more than a generational talent. The NHL’s Mount Rushmore? It’s incomplete without Sidney Crosby. — Shelly Anderson
Numbers? That’s a good starting point.
Howie Morenz certainly put up numbers. The Montreal Canadiens center led the NHL in scoring twice. As late as the mid-1960s, he was just one of 18 NHL players to score 250 goals.
Accomplishments? Another worthy category.
Morenz won three Hart Trophies, a trio of Stanley Cups and was a three-time NHL all-star team selection. He was an original inductee into the Hall of Fame in 1945.
But lots of players posted numbers, and just as many assembled major achievements. What shapes the narrative for Morenz’s legend is how the way he played the game changed the way the game was played and where the game was played. “Some people say my dad saved hockey,” Howie Morenz Jr, explained to The Montreal Gazette in 2000.
Morenz certainly legitimized the NHL. Just as Wayne Gretzky’s 1988 arrival in Los Angeles opened up the NHL to an explosion of expansion into the far west, southwest and Sun Belt areas of the U.S., six decades earlier, it was Morenz’s arrival to the NHL that allowed the league to first plant its flag on American soil – or, to be more precise, in American rinks.
Morenz did for the NHL what Babe Ruth did for baseball and what television did for the NFL. Morenz made it a major-league enterprise.
When Morenz signed with the Canadiens in 1923, the NHL was nothing more than a provincial outfit, a four-team loop with three teams in Ontario and one in Quebec. Within a year of his arrival, two teams were added, including the first American-based club, the Boston Bruins.
Legendary New York sports promoter Tex Rickard saw Morenz play once and knew he needed an NHL team in the Big Apple. Rickard immediately changed the blueprints for the new Madison Square Garden to include an ice plant. In 1925, the Hamilton Tigers franchise relocated to become the New York Americans.
The Canadiens would provide the opposition for the first NHL game at MSG, the visitors billed in promotional ads as, “Those Flying Frenchmen from Montreal WITH MORENZ.”
By 1926, there were 10 NHL teams – six in the USA. Morenz signed with the Habs for $2,500 with a bonus of $850 in 1923, but by the late 1920s, stars like Morenz were earning as much as $7,500 a season.
Fans bought tickets to see Morenz because he was electric with the puck. The NHL was a plodding, defense-first-league when he showed up. Just as Ruth’s towering home runs altered the perception of baseball, Morenz’s frenetic, speedball rushes were an exciting new tactic.
His rink-length forays were so spectacular, Morenz was afforded two nicknames – ‘The Mitchell Meteor,’ from his hometown in Ontario, and ‘The Stratford Streak’ in the place where he rose to hockey prominence and was discovered by the Habs. “When he wound up behind his net, the crowd would start getting off their seats,” veteran Montreal sportswriter Harold Atkins told The Montreal Gazette in 1978. “As he tore down the rink, they started rising higher and higher. It was great orchestration. The finale. Score or don’t score, you were on your feet because it was Morenz.”
Like Gretzky, Morenz did things never before seen on the ice. Like Gordie Howe, Morenz dictated how the game would be played. Like Bobby Orr, Morenz’s sensational charges ended with a spectacular tally, or a Gomez Addams-style trainwreck. “He was that good and better,” legendary Canadiens coach and Hall of Famer Toe Blake, who played with Morenz at the end of his career, said in 1978. “You know how good he was end to end? You know Bobby Orr? The same thing, the blinding speed but without the manoeuvrability, the reason being that Morenz didn’t care how hard he got hit or how often.”
As with Orr’s chronic knee ailments that halted his career at 30, the Meteor flamed out tragically. Morenz was 34 when he died in hospital of a pulmonary embolism on March 8, 1937, exactly two months after sustaining a badly broken leg when crashed into the boards by Chicago defenseman Earl Seibert.
Supporters packed the Montreal Forum for his funeral. Another 200,000 lined the streets to see the procession pass by carrying his casket. “Some people say he was the greatest player they ever saw,” Morenz Jr. said. “He made a contribution, that’s for sure.”
One worthy of a place on the NHL’s Mount Rushmore. — Bob Duff
Illustrations by Kagan McLeod
This story appears in the December 10, 2018 of The Hockey News magazine.