With little fanfare and less regret, Mario Lemieux made it official last Saturday at the Dapper Dan charity dinner at the Pittsburgh Hilton. This would be his final season. He was kissing it all goodbye: the clutching and grabbing, the pain, the aggravation, the glory and the scoring titles. In a few weeks (maybe sooner, depending on how quickly the Penguins vanish from the playoffs), the most potent goal-scorer in NHL history will hang up his skates and retire. No farewell tour. No string of "Thanks for the Memories, Mario" events. He is going gentle into that good night, ever the unreachable star. And if the reclusive 31-year-old left the impression that he was counting the days—he has referred to this season as "the light at the end of the tunnel"—well, that could be because he was.
For someone who has made a career of making impossible plays look easy, the one trick he could never pull off was to savor being Mario Lemieux. Not outwardly, anyway. It always seemed such a burden, as if he had made some sort of Faustian pact as a youngster: The more talent you are given, the less joy you will extract from the game.
As an 18-year-old phenom from the suburbs of Montreal, charged with saving the then woeful Pittsburgh franchise, Lemieux broke with tradition by refusing to pose in a Penguins jersey the day he was drafted because he hadn't yet been signed. Public relations were never more than an afterthought for him. "Mario's almost a loner," says former Pittsburgh general manager and coach Eddie Johnston, who made Lemieux the first pick overall in 1984. "He was a shy kid and might have felt awkward at first because he didn't speak much English. And even though he picked the language right up, that might have stayed with him. He passed on all the interviews and endorsements."
The NHL was Wayne Gretzky's league when Lemieux broke in, and Lemieux has never fully escaped Gretzky's shadow. It is nearly impossible to assess the accomplishments of one player without referring to the other. They are the two greatest centers in the history of the league, and no one else comes close. "I tried to gauge my career against his," Lemieux says, denying that others' constant comparisons of him with Gretzky detracted from his enjoyment of the game. "It helped me to elevate my game to a level he'd reached. It was great for both of us."
Gretzky has averaged 2.03 points per game over his 18-year career; Lemieux, 2.01. No other player with a minimum of 500 points has averaged as many as 1.5 points per game. Gretzky has won nine MVP awards; Lemieux, three. Lemieux might have won one more, in 1988-89, if he hadn't been so aloof with the press, which votes on the award. Gretzky has won 10 scoring titles; Lemieux, if he hangs on to his lead this season, will finish with six. Gretzky has hoisted the Stanley Cup four times; Lemieux, twice.
The one area in which the 6'4", 226-pound Lemieux is demonstrably superior is scoring goals. His average of .826 goals per game—612 goals in 741 games at week's end—is by far the best in NHL history. (Gretzky's average is .647.) But injuries and illness have kept Lemieux from challenging Gretzky's domination of the record book. Lemieux has never played every game in a season, and he has sat out 243 regular-season games in the '90s. His career might be symbolized best by the 1989-90 season, in which he fashioned a 46-game point-scoring streak, five short of Gretzky's record. But Lemieux's run ended when, debilitated by back pain, he removed himself after one period of a game against the New York Rangers.
That back would torment Lemieux for years. Teammates remember that he couldn't bend over. The only way he could undress was by letting his pants fall down around his ankles so he could step out of them. He needed to use a footrest to tie on his skates. Some nights he couldn't straighten up afterward, and his teammates would just leave him in the locker room. The back was operated on in July 1990 and again in July 1993, but Lemieux was seldom free of pain. He missed 54 games one year, 62 another. "It takes a toll on you mentally to play in pain so often," says Pittsburgh defenseman Craig Muni, who was a teammate of Gretzky's when both were with the Edmonton Oilers. "Wayne never had to overcome a major injury."
"Nobody's been through what Mario has," says Johnston.
Even the championship years came with an emotional price. Lemieux won his first Stanley Cup in June 1991 and was voted the MVP of the playoffs, finally silencing critics who had called him a one-dimensional, undisciplined talent. But a pall was cast over the entire year when, five months later, Bob Johnson, the popular coach of the Penguins, died of brain cancer.
A second Cup followed in 1992, with Scotty Bowman as interim coach, but Lemieux had already started talking about retiring. In January of that year he called the NHL a "garage league" and was fined $1,000. He also said, "The advantage is to the marginal players now. They can hook and grab, and the good players can't do what they're supposed to do." It is a theme he has returned to often.