While Wayne Gretzky stayed healthy and free from injuries throughout his whole career, Mario Lemieux wasn’t as fortunate.
He never played an entire season; still, the Pittsburgh Penguins cult hero is widely acknowledged as one of the best players of all time.
To many, Lemieux was, at his best, a more skillful player than The Great One, and if he’d only stayed healthy, he would actually top Gretzky’s unbeatable point record in the NHL.
Lemieux only played 915 games but still managed to put up 690 goals and 1,723 points.
He could win games for the Penguins by himself, and he was completely unstoppable when he played. He was at his best in the late 80s and early 90s, getting close to the magical 200-point mark several times.
And he managed to do it despite an illness that would have forced most players into early retirement. At the age of 27, doctors discovered a lump on his neck was the first stage of Hodgkin’s disease.
He missed 23 games while undergoing radiation treatments, and for most players, the season would have been over. But, 23 games later, at the beginning of March, he returned a month ahead of schedule.
With Lemieux returning, the Penguins went on a 17-game winning streak, an NHL record still standing today. And during those games, Lemieux scored 27 goals and assisted on 24 more.
During Lemieux’s time being sidelined, Pat LaFontaine had closed a 33-point gap to take a 12-point lead in the NHL scoring race.
He, for sure, thought he’d won it, but Lemieux had the scoring race on his mind through treatment.
“I thought about it even during radiation,” said Lemieux to Sports Illustrated. “I was determined to come back and regain the lead.”
But Lemieux’s comeback was remarkable. He did something no one had done before or has done since, except perhaps Lemieux when he returned for his second and third comebacks.
Lemieux won his fourth scoring title, and his teammates were in shock.
It even led to Kevin Stevens stating a bold take about the Gretzky/Lemieux debate.
“I grew up watching Bobby Orr,” the power forward said. “And Wayne Gretzky was phenomenal. But Mario is on a different level.”
The Penguins fell short to the Islanders in the Division Finals, but their record-breaking regular season still holds a place in the history books, and Mario Lemieux was the one to thank. What a player!