Mmmmmmm...egg rolls. Better yet, microwaved egg rolls. Mario Lemieux, the extraordinary young center for the Pittsburgh Penguins and our culinary guide for the evening, carefully fingers each icy morsel and then fires it into the oven.
"Something to drink?" he asks, opening the refrigerator. Inside, there is food with a Civil War expiration date. The dishes in the sink are dirty. On the bottom shelf of the fridge is a very dubious-looking chocolate cream pie. "My girlfriend made that," Lemieux says. "She went back home to Montreal three weeks ago."
Thank goodness beer keeps. Lemieux grabs an Iron City—what else would a self-respecting Pittsburgher drink—and plops down onto the couch in his furnished apartment. Soon the microwave whines. Lemieux, with the daring of youth, takes the first bite. "Ugggh," he says, wincing. "Bad, eh?" Lemieux does the only rational thing. Back to the refrigerator. Ketchup.
So now the ugly truth can be told. Lemieux is a normal 20-year-old, much like any other 20-year-old. Except for one difference: He's the 20-year-old who saved hockey in Pittsburgh, the man-child who brought the Penguins back from endangered species status, both competitively and financially. No player—not Wayne Gretzky, not Bobby Orr—has ever been asked to do so much both on the ice and off. No player has ever responded more brilliantly and gracefully.
March 3, 1986
"Without Lemieux, they pack up the team and move to another city," says Glen Sather, president, general manager and coach of the Edmonton Oilers.
Lemieux, drafted No. 1 overall in 1984, scored 43 goals and had 57 assists last season for 100 points, the third-highest total by a rookie (bettered only by Peter Stastny and Dale Hawerchuk). He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's Rookie of the Year. He was the Most Valuable Player in the All-Star Game. And, moonlighting, he led Team Canada to a stunning victory over the Soviet Union and a second-place finish at the world championships in Prague.
This season Lemieux is ahead of that pace, by a lot. In 59 games the 6'4", 200-pound Montrealer has 38 goals and 72 assists for 110 points and thus ranks second in the league to Gretzky, who has 164 points. As of Sunday, Lemieux had the longest consecutive point scoring streak in the NHL, at 18 games. And as he has staged his midseason scoring surge, the Penguins, with a 28-25-7 record, are locked in a battle with the N.Y. Islanders for third place in the tough Patrick Division. Their 63 points earned in 60 games are 10 more than they accumulated for all of 1984-85, and suddenly a team that could win only 16 games the season before Lemieux arrived is a good bet to make the playoffs.
Perhaps most important, the Penguins are no longer regarded by Pittsburgh as comic relief after the Steelers pack up and go home. Last season, attendance at the 16,033-seat Civic Arena increased 46%, from an average of 6,839 to 10,018. This season there has been another 18% gain, to 11,864. How much of that increase is due to Lemieux? "I'd say 90 percent," says Paul Steigerwald, the Penguins' director of marketing. "No, actually I'd have to say 100 percent. Without him, the team doesn't improve and the fans don't come out. He's meant everything to this organization."
Including its continued existence in Pittsburgh. It was only last summer that Edward J. DeBartolo, owner of the Penguins and the Major Indoor Soccer League's Pittsburgh Spirit, threatened to disband or move both of the financially draining franchises. The Penguins were said to be going north across the border to Hamilton, Ont. But on July 22, DeBartolo won a $425,000 reduction in Civic Arena rent and a city-county commitment of as much as $11.4 million to refurbish the 24-year-old building. In return, DeBartolo pledged only to keep the teams in Pittsburgh for at least this season. Now, with Lemieux leading a renaissance that has turned Steel City fans on, the moving vans have been called off. "We're staying right here," says general manager Eddie Johnston.
And so is Lemieux. He had signed the richest NHL rookie contract ever—$350,000 for each of his first two seasons. This winter the Penguins gave him a five-year deal worth an estimated $2.75 million, which puts him second only to Gretzky on the league salary scale.
A small price to pay for a savior. "Look at him," says Michel Goulet of the Quebec Nordiques pointing toward Lemieux, who towers over a clot of reporters. Members of both All-Star teams are gathered for a press conference at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Hartford on the day before their recent game. "Nothing bothers him," says Goulet, who is, like Lemieux, a French Canadian acquainted with the problems of expressing himself accurately in English. "He's so calm."
Lemieux draws questions he has heard many times before: How do you compare with Gretzky? ...Do you feel any different this year than last year? ...Are you excited about the All-Star Game?
Lemieux responds patiently: I'm not at the same level as Gretzky yet.... Yes, I feel more comfortable this year.... Sure, I'm excited. It's the best against the best. It'll be fun.
"I can't get him to speak up," a radio reporter complains. The writers snort, "The usual stuff." But Lemieux has been speaking English regularly for only two years, and it's hard to be expansive when you're mostly concerned with getting the noun and verb in the right sequence.
"Sometimes it was frustrating for me, especially last year," Lemieux says. "One time I was on Myron Cope's radio show and you know how he talks. [With a Pittsburgh dialect that challenges even American listeners.] I didn't understand a word. I just answered the questions, 'Yes...no...I think so.' "
Lemieux took Berlitz courses in English when he was a teenager playing junior hockey for the Laval team in Quebec, but he has found the only way to really learn a language is to become immersed in it. His method: "I watched a lot of soap operas last year."
While his self-education techniques might be unorthodox, it's clear that Lemieux takes the responsibilities of superstardom seriously. "It is something he's prepared for, because people have been talking about him since he was very young," says Gretzky, who was a household name in Canada when he was nine. "The hardest part is that sometimes people forget you're human."
There's the hitch. Lemieux is just 20. Adulthood doesn't just knock on the door and let itself in after you score your first NHL goal—which Lemieux did on his very first shift for the Penguins. "Mario sort of has a dual personality," says Bob Perno, one of Lemieux's agents. "Around the people he doesn't really know or people in the hockey world—teammates and reporters—he has an image he must project. And he knows that. Always smiling, taking things in stride. He has unbelievable maturity in that sense, a 20-year-old going on 28.
"But when you get him away from that scene, get him back home with friends, he reverts to being an 18-year-old. I remember the night before we signed his new contract this winter. There was still a lot of pressure. I was nervous, his dad was nervous. So we're sitting there in his apartment and Mario says, 'Let's play Intellivision Football.' I swear, he was more interested in beating me at Intellivision Football than he was about a multimillion-dollar contract. That's the flip side."
It is a flip side that includes a better-than-average impersonation of Elvis Presley and an equally good, but more improbable one, of the towering Lemieux as Pee-wee Herman. And like any growing lad, Lemieux gets his Z's. "Nobody sleeps as well as Mario," says teammate Terry Ruskowski, who rooms with him on the road. "He lives for sleep. He hits the bed and that's it. It irritates the hell out of me."
Even off the ice, there are times when Lemieux shows a maturity far beyond his years. After a game in which the Penguins tied the Philadelphia Flyers 2-2 at the Civic Arena, he was approached by autograph hounds, including a stunning young woman with stars in her eyes. "I've sent you cards, notes.... Did you get them?" she asked. Lemieux said yes, thank you—white lies are permitted—signed all the autographs and moved on to his Chevy Blazer 4 x 4. Thirty minutes later he was home, phoning Nathalie Asselin, his girlfriend of three years, and his parents, Jean-Guy and Pierrette, in Montreal.
This is the Penguins' second chance with a French-Canadian supernova, and they are determined to handle Lemieux better than they did Pierre Larouche when he arrived in 1974. For Lucky Pierre, then 18, life became a party in hockey heaven. Much of the blame must rest with the Penguins' front office, which closed its eyes to Larouche's excesses and even fed them (with the likes of the Win A Date With Pierre contests).
With Lemieux, the Penguins' first priority was to place him with a local family during his rookie year. "That way, we were sure he was eating right and keeping decent hours," says Johnston. "And, it was important for him to have a home base to work from, people he could lean on." As a Bruin veteran in 1966, it was Johnston who took the 18-year-old Orr under his wing and showed him how to cope with life in the NHL.
For Lemieux, those people were the Mathewses—Nancy and Tom and their three sons, Tom, 23, Dave, 22, Mike, 20—of Mount Lebanon, Pa. Johnston met the Mathewses at a Christmas party in 1980, his first year with the Penguins. This season the Mathewses are playing host to Craig Simpson, the Penguins' 1985 first-round draft pick.
Significantly, the Mathews home is just a short distance from the bachelor apartment Lemieux has rented for this season. "It's like having another mother," Lemieux says of Nancy. "She still comes over all the time, cleans, brings over food. And she does my mail." When the Mathews boys came home for Christmas, they engaged Lemieux in some ball hockey games in the street in front of the house, and if Mario was being treated like a superstar, it was undetectable.
Ever since his first glimpse of downtown Pittsburgh from the mouth of the Fort Pitt Tunnel, Lemieux has been hooked on the town. He wants to make it his permanent home, to the Penguins' delight. "This is the guy we're building the franchise around," says Johnston.
Not a bad idea. After all, what other city has a young center who can be legitimately compared with the Great One? Gretzky versus Lemieux. Sather says it's unfair. Johnston calls it premature, though he will not let the subject drop until he has built a persuasive case for Lemieux as this year's league MVP.
Gretzky is finding the speculative matchups a bit tedious. "It seems like only yesterday people were saying I was too small and too slow to play this game," he says. "Now, all of a sudden I'm over the hill."
There is one basis for comparison in which Gretzky clearly comes off second best; at 6 feet and 170 pounds, he gives away four inches and 30 pounds to Lemieux. And Lemieux makes the most of the difference. Since the second half of last season Lemieux's game has become more physical. "Winning the All-Star Game MVP gave him the confidence that he belonged," says Johnston. "From then on, he took off." Says coach Bob Berry, "He might be the best defensive forward we have. He was never asked to play defensively in the juniors, but Mario realizes that he has to play both ends of the ice in this league and he has done it quite well. He comes back deep into his own end and he takes the body." Actually, it is more apt to compare Lemieux with the most classic center in hockey history, Jean Beliveau, the cornerstone of the Montreal dynasty from 1950 to '71. Lemieux could be the next great "big man" in hockey. "Mario's strength gives his game a whole different dimension," says Philadelphia coach Mike Keenan. "He can do more than just finesse you; he can beat you with his size. That's why he's so effective in tight situations around the net."
Lemieux's puck-handling dexterity and his long reach make him especially dangerous in cramped quarters. At times Lemieux appears to be playing shinny when he senses a teammate cutting toward the net. Then zap.
"If you go at Mario like a madman, he'll make you look like a complete idiot," says Bruin defenseman Ray Bourque. "He just holds the puck out there on his forehand and dares to you to commit yourself. If you do, he slips it past you, and if you don't, he controls the blue line and has time to make the play."
Lemieux's game is a study in self-control. He does not appear to play furiously; his arms and legs do not flail madly. "He's a very deceptive skater," says Philadelphia's Ron Sutter, one of Lemieux's designated shadows this season. "Believe me, when he wants to go, he goes."
"Walter Gretzky gave it to Wayne," says Sather. "Jean-Guy Lemieux gave it to Mario." Sather was just talking about one quality, talent. But Jean-Guy also gave his son a name that means "the best." In every way, Mario is living up to his inheritance.