Mario Lemieux: The Last of the Pure Legends and Memories of a Time Long Gone

Mario Lemieux's retirement has ushered in a new round of 'who's the greatest hockey player ever?' debate. Specifically, the question almost always comes down to 'Gretzky or Lemieux?' Or Orr, or Howe, or Richard.

In 2002, Sports Illustrated published its 'Greatest Feats' special collector's edition. In the 'Lifetime of Excellence' section they chose athletes they felt made the cut. Among them were Bobby Orr at #12 and Wayne Gretzky. 99 was ranked first and SI summarized their argument with the following line; "Wayne Gretzky's career may be the greatest body of work in sports history, and his record for career points will last several lifetimes." I agree.

The Magnificent One's career will always be lamented for the 'what could have been' scenario. Hey, the 'what if's' of history are just that - subjective conjecture. What if Italy, for example, united during the Renaissance? During the age of exploration, would South America be speaking Italian? What if Italian influence was rooted in a collective and consolidated state? Alas, as interesting this theoretical thought may be this is for abstract debate.

Wayne Gretzky is without doubt the greatest hockey player who ever played the game. I say this with all do respect to Morenz, Richard, Howe, Hull Sr., Orr, Esposito and Lemieux. People will come up with all sorts of reasons - some reasonable others ridiculous - to try and downplay this fact and reality. We've heard them all; Gretzky played with legends (true, but he helped turn them into legends), Gretzky had Semenko to protect him (well, he didn't ask for that and it spoke to Glen Sather's smarts in protecting his investment more than anything), he played during a watered-down offensive era (again accurate, but it's still all relative and it was the same for everyone. The net dominance was clear. His next closest rival was kilometres behind), he was not a power forward (no, but he managed to stay healthy) and so on.

Lemieux's numbers are similar to Gretzky's in that their points per game production was staggering at 1.88 and 1.92 respectively. And yes, I will entertain the notion that he was the greatest 'pure' talent ever. Just by watching him you knew this to be true. But ordaining someone the greatest ever involves so much more and 66's career (cut short because of cancer and other injuries) comes up short. 99's meets any criteria of what is deemed to be great. Imagine if Mario played in Montreal? His status would be that of an immortal god. I know Pittsburgh has treated Lemieux well and they are aware that they were blessed with such a rare specimen. I just hope they never forget.

More importantly, Mario's retirement was more than just about hockey for me. It signaled the end of an era for me. Mario came into the league in 1984 when hockey (and soccer) was all that mattered to me. Before that, played in the Quebec Major Juniors for les Voisins de Laval down the street from where I lived. My father knew that a legend was about to be born and took my brother and I to a couple of pre-NHL Lemieux games. He was a stunning player to watch.

The Montreal Canadiens were my lifeline and the league and sport transcended all things. I grew up watching Steve Yzerman, Wayne Gretzky, Denis Savard, Dale Hawerchuk and my favorite Swede Mats Naslund to name a precious few; not to mention the Oilers and the Islanders dynasties. Playing ball hockey in crisp, dry white snow in sub-zero temperatures with my French-Canadian friends was all that I knew - and loved.

How time flies and changes. The game means little to me now. The Habs are run by the marketing department who only care if the Bell Center sells out win or lose. The game, while filled with outstanding talent, is probably a more skilled game than ever, has lost its spiritual center. Money has destroyed hockey (if not all sports) and everything we see is all a carefully orchestrated advertising blitz.

Bob Seger once sang 'Old time rock'n roll' lamenting the passing of a golden age in rock. With music you could always go back. It's not the same in sports. Someone should write about 'Old time sports.' I'm not usually the type to compare eras but we did lose something in translation here. Maybe the game was not as good in the 50s, 60s or 70s. But the spirit was surely better.

Mario or Gretzky? It's a nice debate. But I fear we've lost so much more.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Mysterious and anonymous comments as well as those laced with cyanide and ad hominen attacks will be deleted. Thank you for your attention, chumps.