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50 years of the NHL Draft - The magnificence of Mario

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TSN.ca Staff
6/16/2012 1:38:37 PM
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To commemorate the 50th NHL Draft which takes place next Friday in Pittsburgh, TSN.ca looks back at 10 memorable storylines from the history of the event in 10 days. Today, we look back at the best first overall selection - Mario Lemieux in 1984.

The Pittsburgh Penguins finished the 1983-84 season in last place with 58 losses and 38 points. But there appeared to be a light at the end and his name was Mario Lemieux.

Lemieux had just completed the greatest single season in Canadian Major Junior Hockey history, scoring 133 goals and adding 149 assists for 282 points in just 70 games with the QMJHL's Laval Voisins. He still holds the record for most goals and most points in one season.

Surely, he could lead the Penguins out of the wilderness and provide some much needed stability for the franchise.

But not so fast. Leading up to the June 9 NHL Entry Draft at the Montreal Forum, Lemieux's agent Gus Badali made it clear that his client was not happy with the contract offer from the Penguins. So when the Penguins called Lemieux's name from the podium, the Montreal native joined the Pittsburgh brass on stage but refused to put the Penguins sweater on.

Lemieux would eventually sign with the Penguins before the start of the 1984-85 campaign and hockey in Pittsburgh would never be the same.

The 6'4" lanky centre scored his first NHL goal on his first NHL shot in his first NHL shift and he would not look back. He finished the year with 43 goals and 57 assists for 100 points en route to winning the Calder Trophy as the league's best rookie.

Lemieux continued to rack up the points but a playoff spot was proving to become a tougher task for a player like Lemieux who was not used to losing. Many point to the summer of 1987 as a turning point in his career. He was invited to take part in the Canada Cup and played alongside the greatest Canadian hockey players, including Wayne Gretzky. Lemieux went on to score the dramatic game-winning goal in the final against the Soviet Union and returned to Pittsburgh with a renewed sense of his own abilities.

He won both the Art Ross and Hart Trophies the following season, and then led the Penguins to their first post-season berth during his tenure in 1988-89. That season, Lemieux again won the Art Ross Trophy with a career-high 199 points. He and the Penguins were on the rise.

Ironically, the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup in a season that saw Lemieux play just 26 games due to back problems. However, he brought the hockey world to its feet that spring, scored an eye-popping 44 points in the 1990-91 playoffs, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy along the way.

The Penguins would repeat as champions and Lemieux would be front and centre during the regular season and playoffs. He amassed 131 points in 64 regular season games to claim his third Art Ross Trophy and then led the way in the playoffs with 34 points and his second Conn Smythe Trophy. The high expectations from 1984 were being met and then some.

But in 1993, Lemieux was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a specialized form of lymphoma, and missed almost two seasons of action. Some felt he would never play again. But the man who saved hockey in Pittsburgh wasn't done yet. In 1995-96, he made a triumphant return to the NHL, scoring 166 points to win his fifth Art Ross Trophy as well as his third Hart Trophy.

However, at the age of 31, Lemieux was forced to retire due to recurring back problems. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame that fall, becoming the only player to retire from the NHL with a points per game average greater than two.

Two years later, he saved the Penguins again, this time from financial ruin. With the team on the verge of bankruptcy, he made the transition from player to owner and kept the team in Pittsburgh.

But he still had a yearning to play so in 2000, he surprised the hockey world by returning as a player, scoring three points in his first game back in December, much to the delight of a full house at the Igloo.

Over five more seasons, he would add 77 goals and 152 assists to his already outstanding career numbers.

From first overall in 1984 to owner in 2012, Lemieux is still the face of the franchise in Pittsburgh. In 915 career games, he scored 690 goals and added 1,033 assists for 1,723 points. He won six Art Trophies, three Hart Trophies, two Stanley Cups and two Conn Smythe Trophies. He survived a battle with cancer, was saddled by constant back pain and put his personal fortune at risk and the Pittsburgh faithful are forever grateful.

He saved hockey in Pittsburgh as a player in 1984 and did it again as an owner in 1999. You can't ask more of the best first overall draft pick in NHL history.

Follow the TSN Quizmaster on Twitter and get more from this story as the draft draws closer. TSN and TSN.ca have exclusive coverage of the 2012 NHL Draft on Friday, June 22 at 7pm et/4pm pt live from the CONSOL Energy Centre in Pittsburgh.

Mario Lemieux (Photo: Ken Levine/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Ken Levine/Getty Images)

Best No. 1 Overall picks

The Best Number One picks in the history of the NHL Draft, as chosen by the TSN Quizmaster:


1984: Mario Lemieux

1971: Guy Lafleur

1973: Denis Potvin

1970: Gilbert Perreault

1981: Dale Hawerchuk


OTHERS

1989: Mats Sundin

1988: Mike Modano

1991: Eric Lindros

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