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Why, then, are people not rushing to crown him? Part of the reason is that, in Lemieux's four-plus seasons, Pittsburgh has never been to the playoffs. He is not to blame for that—the Penguin club he joined in 1984 was coming off a 16-58-6 season. But you cannot be crowned the NHL's best player until you have done your stuff in April and May, after the six months of exhibition games the NHL tries to pass off as a regular season. While Lemieux and the Pens got reacquainted with their short irons each spring, Gretzky was helping his former team win three Stanley Cups and turning in some of his best work.
But the Penguins have gotten better in each of Lemieux's seasons, except for a slight dip in 1986-87, and last year's 36-35-9 team missed the playoffs only on the last day of the season. This year the extravagantly improved Penguins are battling for the Patrick Division lead with a 28-17-4 record and are a cinch to make the playoffs for the first time since 1982. But unless Lemieux plays Moses and leads his team to the Stanley Cup, it will be difficult to contend that he has supplanted Gretzky as the greatest player in the game today.
Like no one else in sport, Gretzky brings out the best in his teammates. Whether it is because he is such a nice guy that they want to play better for him, or because he has a look in his eye that says "I played my heart out tonight, did you?" his teammates continually crank it up for him.
Exhibit A: this year's Edmonton Oilers. Without Gretzky, the club that won the Stanley Cup in four of the last five seasons, including '87-88, has been leaderless on the power play and is hovering listlessly in third place in its division.
Exhibit B: the Kings. No, their improved play—they're second to Calgary in the Smythe Division, two points ahead of Edmonton—can't all be chalked up to new coach Robbie Ftorek's acumen in juggling his forward lines. As several Kings have said about Gretzky's presence, "It's not like we got one new player, it's like we got 20."
Exhibit C: Lemieux himself. When le Magnifique was named to the Team Canada squad for the 1987 Canada Cup series, he arrived with the reputation of being a potential demigod, but one who took an occasional rest out there. Part of that rap was bogus: At 6'4" and 210 pounds, Lemieux has a powerful yet seemingly effortless stride that often makes it seem as though he is skating at three-quarter speed. But part of it wasn't: When the spirit moved Lemieux. he did take a breather.
After initially resisting such a move, Team Canada coach Mike Keenan put Lemieux on Gretzky's right wing. Together, 99 and 66 (Lemieux began wearing the latter number in junior hockey at the behest of his agents, who no doubt had visions of Gretzky comparisons) electrified the tournament. Gretzky set up nine of Lemieux's tournament-high 11 goals. "He gave me a lot of confidence in myself, and I brought it back to Pittsburgh," says Lemieux.
But Gretzky did more than feed Lemieux the puck. He was Lemieux's drill instructor by example in a six-week tutorial on intensity. "Every shift, Wayne tried to do the impossible," recalls Lemieux. Having been exposed to such a work ethic, Lemieux improved his own. The hockey world has taken notice.
"He's doing a heck of a lot better than he did in his first couple of years," says Howe. "Before he started to work harder, I used to see him play a five-minute hockey game sometimes—and win it in those five minutes."
"Maybe Mario's not all over the ice, but that's because he's smart," says Clarke. "He knows where the puck's going. I think he works his butt off." But Clarke also subscribes to the let's-reserve-judgment-on-Mario school of thought. "Wayne has proved it every year, year after year. Mario has mountains to climb before he approaches Wayne."