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Lemieux's goals with defensemen draped all over him and his blow-your-mind assists are both violent and original, and he has other moves that leave admirers shaking their heads. Cunneyworth recalls seeing him stickhandle his way through the Vancouver Canucks. "They were literally falling at his feet, one after another," he says. "I froze that picture: three guys behind Mario on the ice, in a heap. I'll never forget that. He ended up behind the net and just reached around and stuffed the puck in. I was on the bench with [former Penguin] Mike Blaisdell. We just looked at one another and started laughing."
The backyard rink that Walter Gretzky rigged for his eldest son in the mid-1960s has become part of Canadian hockey lore. Jean-Guy Lemieux, a retired construction worker, has received less credit for packing snow wall-to-wall in the front hallway of his house so his three sons could practice skating indoors. "This is the same carpet we had then," he says proudly.
Outside, children slow down and stare as they pass the house where Mario Lemieux lived. Chez Lemieux is on rue Jogues in Ville Émard, a salty, working-class neighborhood on the southwest outskirts of Montreal. Its houses are mostly redbrick and box-shaped, with tiny front yards and cars parked in the street. Mario offered to build his parents a bigger house in a tonier section of Montreal, but it says something about them that they have never considered leaving.
"This is where all the memories are," says Pierrette Lemieux, gesturing out the kitchen window toward the Église St. Jean de Matha. Behind the church is the rink where her boys, Alain. Richard' and Mario, learned to skate. Alain, 27, played in the NHL for parts of six seasons, including one game with Pittsburgh as a teammate of Mario's, and now plays professionally in Finland. Charles, 24, works in a local brewery.
Was Mario a well-behaved child? "It was as if he had one of these," says Pierrette, indicating a halo over her head. When young Mario's halo slipped, it uncovered a stubborn streak more suited to a pack mule than a cherub. He was, and is, a rotten loser, whether at Monopoly, cards or basement hockey. Tantrums followed losses. "If Mario lost, it would be as if a hurricane went through the basement," says Jean-Guy.
Once, when a babysitter insisted on watching a movie instead of Hockey Night in Canada. Mario, then eight, and his brothers locked her in the bathroom. The brothers Lemieux turned up the volume, the better to drown her out, and sat back to enjoy the game.
Lemieux amassed an unearthly 282 points in 70 games in his last season of junior hockey. Montreal sportscaster Charles-Andre Marchand, who covered Lemieux's team, the Laval Voisins, recalls an exchange between Lemieux and his coach, Jean Begin. After scoring seven points one night. Lemieux was enduring an interview when Begin strode up and thrust the score sheet at him. "Four penalties," snapped Begin. "Bête! [Stupid!]"
Lemieux called after his coach and, score sheet in hand, made a great show of slowly counting up his points. "Five...six...seven—seven, that's not bad," he said. Then he handed the sheet back to Begin and walked away.
Lemieux has an obstinate streak. "One thing I hate is people screaming at me," he says. "If you want me to do something, talk to me. When someone screams at me to hurry up, I slow down."
Later that season, in a game against Shawinigan, Lemieux was scoring almost at will, despite an assigned "shadow" who slashed and hooked him constantly. All at once, Lemieux had had enough. He turned, dropped his gloves and decked his tormentor with one punch.