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Back from the Brink




Some drafts have one player that stands out above all others. In those years, the advantage of a poor season is obvious, and teams that have bad records down the stretch are often criticized for tanking. Regardless of how one feels about the subject, it is impossible not to recognize that the "strategy" sometimes has its advantages. In the 1983-84 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins lost 12 of their last 14 games -- including their last six -- just bad enough to finish three points below the New Jersey Devils for the league's worst record. Their futility was handsomely rewarded. Their prize? Mario Lemieux.


Some immediate improvement took place. The Penguins managed only 38 points in the standings in their last season before Lemieux, a total they increased to 53 points in his rookie season and 76 in his second season. The team did not go without struggles in the early years of the Lemieux era, but their new superstar had brought the team back from the edge of irrelevancy. Being on the brink is something Mario Lemieux is no stranger to.


Personally, I find it hard to entertain arguments for anyone one other than four players as the greatest of all-time. Lemieux is one of those players. A look at his career statistics explain why. Only three players have ever scored 80+ goals in a season. He is one of them. Only Wayne Gretzky has ever scored 200+ points in a season, but of everyone else, Lemieux came the closest, once posting a 199 point season. He led the league in goals three times, scoring at least 50 six times and at least 60 four times. He lead the league in assists three times, and in points six times. He was a great goal-scorer, a great playmaker, and a big,strong body who could impose his will on the opponents.


I would argue, however, that the true measure of Mario Lemieux's greatness was not his accolades on the ice. Those made him a great player, but what made him an inspiration is his resiliency and literal "never say die" attitude.In 1992, the Penguins won their second consecutive Stanley Cup with a Finals sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks. It would have been easy to conclude they were headed for a dynasty. They were on top of the hockey world, and they had the world's greatest player at the time. The dynasty did not happen, but that was nearly the least of their concerns.


The good news for Mario Lemieux in January of 1993 was that his condition had been caught early, and did not appear to be life-threatening. The bad news was that he had been diagnosed with cancer. Anyone who has ever heard the word spoken to themselves or a loved one knows how devastating it is. Sadly, many also know how tragically wrong things can go. While generally optimistic about the situation, one of the oncologists that treated Lemieux still offered a word of caution. "It is a cancer, and all types of cancer are very serious. As a cancer, it can become life-threatening," said Dennis Meisner of Shady-side Hospital. Meisner also warned that the cancer could always move to other parts of the body, and said that the radiation treatments given to Lemieux could cause weight loss and fatigue -- two things a hockey player certainly could not afford if he wanted to compete.


The 1992-93 season was the end of an era in some respects. From the mid-to-late 70s through that season, scoring in the NHL had been at a historically high level. Nine players ecclipsed the 125 point mark, while 21 reached at least 100. Those numbers make what Mario Lemieux did that season even more mind-boggling. The fact that Super Mario missed only 24 games that season is amazing enough. The fact that he led the league in scoring, even more so. Pat LaFontaine and Adam Oates both had MVP-caliber seasons, with each scoring career highs in points with 148 and 142, respectively, yet their 84-game totals fell well short of Lemieux's 60-game total of 160 points. Alexander Mogilny and Teemu Selanne led the league in goals that season with 76, but no one else topped Lemieux's total of 69.


If those numbers are not impressive enough for you, consider these: Had he played a full 84-game schedule, Le Magnifique set a pace that would have set NHL single season records with 97 goals, and 224 points. Incredible as it seems, a strong case can be made that the greatest single season in NHL history was posted by a guy who had cancer. One cannot help but wonder what his stats would have been without the effects of the disease and the treatment.


Mario Lemieux is a fighter. He fought back from cancer. Later, he fought back from injuries to make a limited, but still fairly successful comeback. He fought off all the problems that life could throw at him. Mario Lemieux was a winner on the ice, but he is more than that. As a man who fought back from the brink, he is an inspiration for us all.

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