Hockey Central
Mario
Mario's Main Page
Mario Bids Farewell
Fond Memories
Goodbye Mario
Induction into the HHOF
So Long Mario
Mario Recalls Fond Memories
 
 
Montreal - The birthplace of this legend was a basement. To be precise, it was the bottom floor of the simple, two-floor rowhouse at 6700 Rue Jogues. There the boy honed his puck skills, started his breakaway into hockey history.

The venue was symbolic: Just as he would time and again, with junior Laval and NHL Pittsburgh, Mario Lemieux began his ascent from the cellar.

Before he glided past defensemen and made the puck dance, he deked around columns in the basement. Before he banked pucks off goaltenders and goal posts, he plinked them off his mother's piano. Before he triumphantly raised his stick to delirious sold-out crowds, he ripped up Jean-Guy and Pierrette Lemieux's ceiling.

He shoots. He scores. He exults.

Oops.

"We had to change the ceiling a few times," their youngest son recalls with a smile.

There was Mario, Richard, his elder by a year, and Alain, older by three more. The earliest hockey nights in Ville Emard were wars waged from their knees, using cooking spoons to whack around a ketchup bottle cap. The Brothers Lemieux progressed to wooden hockey sticks and plastic pucks. They played and played and played. And Jean-Guy and Pierrette just kept replacing the ceiling and caring for the tile floor and wearing Band-Aids whenever tickling the chipped piano keys.

But the Lemieuxs knew. From that basement came two National Hockey League players, a far better rate than any other basement on Rue Jogues, in blue-collar Ville Emard, in the West End of Montreal, in possibly all of Quebec. Alain went on to play for the Quebec Nordiques, the St. Louis Blues, even a game with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Mario went on to magnificence.

On a snowy March day decades later, Mario Lemieux sits in the same basement with his parents and brother Richard. Only a few games remained before the end of an NHL career that saw the youngest Lemieux win - take a deep breath - three Hart Trophies for most valuable player, four Lester B. Pearson Awards for the best player as chosen by his peers, six Art Ross Trophies for season scoring championships, two Conn Smythe Trophies for playoff MVP and two Stanley Cups.

This day, they wax nostalgic about the basement.

The ceiling. The piano. The goals. The marathon games, brother against brother, every brother for himself.

His head nearly scrapes the ceiling nowadays. It isn't so much a basement anymore.

"A shrine," Mario calls it.

Walls that once absorbed pucks and ketchup bottle caps now hold jerseys and jackets, portraits and photographs of the Brothers Lemieux.

Mostly, though, these are memories of Mario.

Green Atoms Jersey

Even before he donned the Atoms sweater at ages 7 and 8, parts of Montreal's West End were buzzing about the little Lemieux who didn't need a chair to support him at age 3 when learning to skate two blocks away at the rinks behind St. Jean de Matha Church. Folks were already buzzing about his puck potential.

Alain's Pee Wee team was playing an exhibition when the coach summoned the youngest Lemieux from the stands.

Mario scored a goal and an assist that day against players 9 and 10 years old.

So how old was he? "Seven, eight," says Jean-Guy, the stoic father.

"Six," argues Pierrette, the gregarious mother.

"Six, U.S.," compromises brother Richard.

Black Hurricanes Jersey

Mario Lemieux was No. 12 and the captain of the powerhouse Ville Emard Hurricanes known as the Black Machine.

Future NHLer J.J. Daigneault and future NHL first-round pick Sylvain Cote were teammates on that team. In 1975, when the captain was 9 years old, he steered the Hurricanes to the provincial championship. That souvenir jacket likewise hangs in the basement.

"I remember I played against him in Pee Wee, I think it was at the provincial championship," recalls Steven Finn, later a teammate in Laval and a foe most recently in Pittsburgh as a defenseman with the Los Angeles Kings. "Already, he had a big reputation. Everyone was talking about him. I found out there."

Not only were people talking, some were screaming obscenities at him. Some were spitting on him. That much emotion surrounded the skinny kid with the magical stick.

Eventually, the coach of the Montreal Canadiens, Scotty Bowman, decided to see for himself. The acknowledged hockey genius was duly impressed by the kid whose surname, in French, is an adverb for "the best."

"The first time I ever heard of Mario Lemieux was through Scotty Bowman, indirectly," Bob Perno recalls later.

He is the Montreal-based agent who, along with Toronto partner Gus Badali, represented Wayne Gretzky and then this kid from Ville Emard.

"He was quoted in the paper, 'I have seen a young man named Mario Lemieux play hockey. He will be a future star in the NHL.' The name stayed in my head."

The first time Perno saw him on ice, "I just fell in love with him. Just fell in love. That night, I called Gus and said, `This guy is good.'

"'How good?'"

"'This guy is another Wayne.'"

"He said, 'Don't even say that.' I said, `But he's another Wayne, only bigger.'"

All-Star Jersey

Oddly, the sweater bears No. 10 - his usual numbers were 12 and 27, the same as big brother Alain - and this name between the shoulder blades: M. Lemieux. Seems there was a snarling little all-star on that same team by the name of Claude Lemieux, now a reviled winger with the Colorado Avalanche.

It was at that same level, Midget AAA, ages 14 and 15, that this youngest Lemieux first showed his flair for the dramatic, his penchant for comebacks.

"It was the playoffs," begins Perno.

"I think they were down by a couple goals, and it was late in the third period. Some guy slashed him on the arm; I thought he broke it, big time. The trainer came out and said, 'There's no way he's going back out there.' A couple minutes later, he comes out of the dressing room, he scores three goals and they win the game."

"Afterward, he takes his sweater off, and there's a lump on his forearm the size of a baseball. What they did was take his elbow pad and tape it over the lump. And he went out and scored three goals and they won. He's got incredible will. Incredible will."

How much, the rest of us didn't learn until later.

Le Soixante-Six

The 15-year-old wunderkind was drafted with the first pick overall in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League - by cellar-dwelling les Voisins du Laval.

Gretzky, by then a two-time NHL scoring champion, was teasing his agents, "You tell your kid he'd better wake up early if he's going to take over from me."

This was where the number came up.

Perno remembers it happening this way, during a summertime 1981 train ride to Gretzky's golf tournament in Brantford, Ontario:

"I want to wear 27," Lemieux said. Again, big brother Alain's number.

"Well, family's family," Perno replied. "You both have careers. They should be separate and distinct. Protect your family."

"What number do you think I should wear, then?"

"Mario, I think you're going to be one of the best players of all time. To me, the best player of all time is Wayne Gretzky."

"OK, I'll take 99."

"No, don't do that. I don't think it's fair to Wayne, and it's not fair to you. There's only one Wayne Gretzky, and only one Mario Lemieux. Why not 66,?' It's 99 upside down. People will compare you to Wayne, but they won't criticize you."

Perno recalls half a Lemieux lifetime later: "In a way, it was a soft comparison to Wayne. But it was more of a marketing thing at the time."

Portrait of Lemieux

Centre Sportif Laval was a drafty place before the lanky center from Ville Emard, 40 kilometers away, arrived for the 1981-82 season.

"The building was empty; you could hear flies buzz around that rink," Perno says.

Soon, the barn would be full, 4,000 people, cars parked way past the College Francais and the gray stone federal prison. The only time during Lemieux's three seasons that the place felt drafty was between periods, when the doors were opened to allow all of the smoke to clear.

That first season, he scored 30 goals and - ahem - 66 assists and Laval stepped from the cellar. The second season, he scored 184 points in - ahem - 66 games and guided Laval to the league title. But he lost the scoring race and some late-season zip all because he spent a chunk of the winter sitting on defensive-minded Dave King's bench in the World Junior Championships.

Lemieux vowed to stay home the next winter. He did not want to play for King, he wanted a chance to win the Quebec league scoring title and he wanted to spend Christmas in Ville Emard, something he would not be able to do once the NHL came calling.

He took it to court, too.

The Quebec league attempted to suspend the Laval center, alleging he had a contractual obligation to play for his country. The 17-year-old kid and his agents sought an injunction in provincial court. Lemieux won. It wouldn't be the last time he took a stand for what he believed was right.

"Mario seemed to have a knack for stirring up controversy," Perno says. "Even at that young age, he was so strong in character. He had an unbelievable maturity. Nothing bothered him. He takes on the world."

Le Magnifique dominated the Quebec league, and he thoroughly enjoyed it.

Laval lost only 16 of 70 games that last season, 1983-84. Le Soixante-Six had a 61-game scoring streak.

Teammate Michel Mongeau remembers, "He'd make a play and skate to the bench and hit me with his shoulder and smile, 'You see that Mike?' He wanted to be the best. But he never made us feel bad about it."

In the regular-season finale in 1983-84, with NHL scouts scrambling for seats in the already filled building, Perno invited Gretzky and Edmonton teammate Paul Coffey from Centre-Ville Montreal to see local hockey history.

"He needed three goals to break Guy Lafleur's record," Finn remembers. "He didn't get any the first period. In the locker room, we were saying, 'C'mon Mario, wake up.' He said, `Lotsa time. Lotsa time.' Sure enough, he did it."

Lemieux scored six goals in all that final night, to go with five assists. Eleven points, all told. He had his picture taken with Gretzky - or was it, Gretzky had his picture taken with him?

Lemieux finished with a league-record 133 goals and 282 points, and was the first overall selection by the last-place Penguins in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft.

Funny thing was, if he had been born 20 days earlier, he could have been the Minnesota North Stars' opening pick in the 1983 draft.

Photograph of Top Picks

Second choice Kirk Muller in his New Jersey sweater and third pick Ed Olczyk in his Chicago shirt clowned for the cameras, trying to hide the face of the No. 1 Lemieux. The man in the middle wore a suit.

Contract negotiations at the time failed to please him and the agents, so Lemieux refused to abide by the draft customs: reporting to his new team's table and donning their jersey.

But 10 days later he was signed, sealed, delivered to Pittsburgh.

Le Magnifique.

Sixty-Six.

The savior of the franchise.

Two Forum seats

Jean-Guy and Pierrette used to be Canadiens season ticket holders. Their youngest bought their old seats when the building closed its doors last season and gave way to the Molson Centre. Did they ever want their boy playing for the hometown team, with the pressure of Le Belle Province and the puck-mad Francophone pressed on him?

"No," Pierrette fairly screams, speaking what few words of English she knows. "Pittsburgh No. 1."

Christmas lights and Santas still adorn the basement, the first floor and the front stoop at 6700 Rue Jogues. The long kitchen table, which sits in the 10x10 area that used to be her three sons' bedroom, looks ready for a family feast.

Pierrette adores the holiday. She adores all things familial.

One of five sisters and two brothers, she still eats breakfast and plays cards almost daily with three sisters living nearby. Mario offered to buy the parents a new home north of Montreal, but Pierrette would hear nothing of leaving her four-rooms-and-a-basement home of 37 years, her family ties, her relatives around Ville Emard.

Jean-Guy didn't want to leave, either, but he didn't say much. He never does.

From his mother, Mario inherited his inner swirl of emotions and the bond of family, yet from his father he received his quiet demeanor and that incredible will.

It was a lung problem that kept a young farmboy named Jean-Guy Lemieux off fields of play and under a doctor's care. Somewhere he passed on to his youngest the drive to overcome any health problem, the refusal to yield under anyone's terms but his own.

No wonder nothing could hold down the kid from the basement.