Let posterity note that the light at the end of the tunnel that is Pittsburgh Penguin hockey was first glimpsed at 2:29 p.m. (E.D.T.) on Sept. 20, 1984, which was when Mario Lemieux scored his first goal in a Penguin intrasquad scrimmage. True, Lemieux's goal came against the NHL's most inept defense—the Pens allowed a league-high 390 goals last season while sagging to the worst record, 16-58-6, in the NHL—but from the reaction of the 400 Pittsburgh diehards who came to see the NHL's top draft choice, the most highly touted rookie since Guy Lafleur, you would have thought Lemieux had just scored the game-winning goal in a Stanley Cup final.
Taking a pass in the slot, the 6'4", 200-pound Lemieux, who turned 19 on Oct. 5, tapped the puck through an on-rushing defenseman's skates, sidestepped deftly, then swept up the puck and shot it past the glove hand of startled goalie Michel Dion. The arena went bonkers—"Our savior has arrived!" screamed one fan—and for minutes the crowd buzzed as if witness to a miracle—a penguin taking flight, say. In the next hour Lemieux drew gasps from the crowd half a dozen more times, snaking the puck away from defensemen with his amazing reach, stickhandling in maddening circles while waiting for teammates to break into the open, slithering perfect passes that so discombobulated the pattern and flow of play that even his linemates were caught off guard.
"Mario did some great things out there today—scary things," gushed Bruce Haralson, the Penguins' Western scout, who operates out of Edmonton, the home of Wayne Gretzky. "He did things that only Gretzky can do. That's what's scary—to think that there might be another one."
It isn't scary to Penguin general manager Eddie Johnston, who wheeled and dealed his team into the league cellar last year (although he won't admit it was deliberate) to assure himself a shot at Lemieux, the highest-scoring junior hockey player of all time. Lemieux averaged better than four points a game last season for the Laval ( Quebec) Voisins.
His performance in the scrimmage put a big grin on Johnston's face. It called to mind a pleasant memory from his own playing days. E.J. had been a goalie for the hapless Boston Bruins in 1966, the year Bobby Orr broke in. "We'd heard all about this 18-year-old kid, Orr, who was going to save the franchise," Johnston said, "but when the Bruins brought him up for a tryout, the veterans just said, 'Let's see what he can do now that he's up against NHL players.' After Orr's second practice, it was, 'Whoa! Look what we found!' That's a pretty good analogy to what I saw out there today."
Johnston had no reason to temper his enthusiasm in the exhibition season. In four games Lemieux had three goals and five assists for an average of two points per game.
"The first thing that struck us about him was his tremendous size," said Mark Johnson, a 5'9" center for the Hartford Whalers who played against Lemieux in his professional debut Sept. 28. "We'd heard about him, but until you see him in person, you can't believe it. He's big enough to take anything anybody dishes out. And he handles the puck like a small forward. That gives him the choice of holding his ground in the slot or moving around the offensive zone to make plays."
Says Hartford G.M. Emile Francis, "He reminds me of Phil Esposito. He can stand in front of the net and with those long arms can really go after rebounds, reaching over defensemen, around them, through them, whatever."
"No one who's come out of junior hockey has ever shown as much potential as Mario—ever," says Pittsburgh coach Bob Berry, who isn't given to exaggeration. Even the much-heralded Orr didn't get the kind of advance publicity that has preceded Lemieux. And Pittsburgh is making the most of it. At the bottom of the NHL in attendance last season, with an average of 6,839 and no sellouts, the Penguins expect a full house for their home opener Oct. 17 against the Vancouver Canucks, a night being billed as the Lemieux Debut. On Oct. 27, when the Penguins play the Montreal Canadiens—Lemieux grew up 10 minutes from the Montreal Forum—they will give away life-size posters on Mario to kids 16 and under, fans who presumably will live to see Pittsburgh win the Stanley Cup. It can only be a matter of time before the Civic Arena itself, a cute little domelike thing, is called the Lemieux Igloo. "I was there this summer, and Lemieux was all they were talking about," says New York Ranger forward Pierre Larouche, a onetime Penguin star whose wife is from the Steel City. "He's going in with a lot of pressure on him."
Seventeen years of frustration—that's pressure. It was appropriate that the original owners of the team selected station WEEP as the voice of the Penguins for the first three years of the franchise's history. Penguin fans did weep. They had to. Time and again, just when things appeared darkest, they'd go completely black. Take the team's best season, 1974-75, when it put together a 37-28-15 record. After eliminating St. Louis in the opening round of the playoffs, the Penguins became only the second NHL team (the 1942 Detroit Red Wings were the first) ever to blow a three-games-to-none lead in a series, losing four straight to the fledgling New York Islanders. Still reeling from that debacle, team officials arrived at work seven weeks later to find that the office doors had been padlocked by the feds. The Pens, awash in $6.5 million of red ink, were the first NHL team since World War II to go bankrupt.