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.