I know that everyone has their own favorite hockey player and has certain reasons for it. Mine is a little different than most as the town I am from has three major teams that they follow here in Liverpool, Nova Scotia. The Montreal Canadiens, The Toronto Maple Leafs and The Boston Bruins. I liked the Bruins color scheme but did not connect with any of the players that were on the team. The Montreal Canadiens were THE team that almost everyone cheered for and I have always been someone who looked outside the norm and expected. The Toronto Maple Leafs were just a bad team but they were televised.
Then one night I was watching Hockey Night in Canada and I saw a team that had the same color palette as The Bruins and seemed like one of the perennial under dog teams. There was something different though as I watched The Pittsburgh Penguins play on the television. There was a player who dared to wear the number 66, which was Wayne Gretzky’s 99 flipped upside down, and he was talented. Damn talented. That player was Mario Lemieux.
From the first moment that I saw him touch the puck on television, until this very day I am convinced of one thing with Mario. I do believe that as far as pure skill is concerned, he is the greatest in the history of the NHL. Wayne Gretzky does have the records but think of this. What if Mario had Jari Kurri on his wing instead of Warren Young?(who by the way, was a 40 goal scorer the season he played with Mario) What if he had the scoring depth of a Kurri, Mark Messier and Glen Anderson? What if he had the protection of a Dave Semenko instead of having to fight all of his own battles when he broke into the NHL?
Now I will not dispute Gretzky’s importance to the game and that he is the greatest to play, as the numbers back it up. I will however, dispute the idea that he had the most natural talent in the history of the NHL. Lemieux did not always have a stellar cast surrounding him but when he did, he put up Gretzky type numbers and sometimes averaged even better numbers.
No player in the history of the NHL possessed the one on one skill of Mario Lemieux. The only one that is even remotely close is Jaromir Jagr but that depends on if he feels like playing that night or not. Mario never backed down from a challenge and he had to overcome his share of many challenges in his career. Wayne Gretzky has a points per game average of 1.92 and Lemieux has 1.88. So if Mario played as many games as Gretzky (while still not having the benefit of a supporting cast that Gretzky did in the beginning,) he would has ended up with 2795 points in his career, which would have been only 61 points behind Gretzky’s career total.
In that same vein, Mario averaged .754 goals per game in his career. Base that average on the amount of games that Gretzky played and he would have scored 1121 goals. Yes, you read that correctly. Mario Lemieux would have been the only 1000 goal scorer in the history of the National Hockey League.
I know that those averaged numbers mean nothing, as Mario Lemieux’s career was cut short due to the combination of various illnesses and injuries. I will, however, argue the the point of view that Mario was second to Gretzky in skill. He may be in production and points but not in skill.