Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - Pittsburgh Penguins - 1990-92
Spotlight
One on One Turning Point

Turning Point - Pittsburgh Penguins - 1990-92
The Pittsburgh Penguins selected Mario Lemieux first overall in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft.
The Pittsburgh Penguins selected Mario Lemieux first overall in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft. (Paul Bereswill/Hockey Hall of Fame)
Teams salivated like Pavlov's dog over the opportunity to select the player who was going to be the undisputed first overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft. There wasn't a scout or team in the NHL who didn't have Mario Lemieux's name cast in granite as the premier catch of the draft. In 1983-84, he had scored 133 goals, 149 assists and 282 points with Laval of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. In the playoffs that season, he was equally productive, collecting 29 goals and 23 assists for 52 points.

But Mario had earned the right to have a mind of his own. Although he had played in the World Junior Championship in 1983, he disliked how Dave King, the team coach, had treated him, so he declined participation in 1984. In addition, he worried that breaking up his final season of junior with the junior tournament might impact on his record-breaking season with Laval.

Prior to the NHL Entry Draft, Mario announced that he would play for any team that drafted him, but when he and his agent could not negotiate a suitable contract with the Penguins, Lemieux declined to pull on a Penguins' jersey after Pittsburgh general manager Ed Johnston called his name with the first overall selection. He claimed he was upset with the contract negotiation. After the draft, the Penguins were able to sign Mario to a two-year contract for $600,000, along with a signing bonus of $150,000.

The Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992 led by captain, Mario Lemieux
The Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in
1991 and 1992 led by captain, Mario Lemieux, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable playoff performer both years.
(Paul Bereswill/Hockey Hall of Fame)


It didn't take Lemieux long to establish himself as a superstar. He was named rookie of the year in 1984-85, scoring 43 goals and 100 points for the Penguins. In 1985-86, he had 48 goals and 141 points; 54 goals and 107 points in 1986-87; 70 goals and 168 points in 1987-88; 85 goals and 199 points in 1988-89 and 45 goals and 123 points in an injury-plagued 1989-90 season.

"We (the Penguins) were led by a young player who, at the time, knew he was good but didn't know how great he could be and how great a leader he could become," commented Paul Coffey. "Mario's coming-out party was at the Canada Cup in 1987 where he got the chance to play and watch Wayne (Gretzky) conduct himself as a professional for three or four weeks. Mario had that ability to pick up a team and carry it on his shoulders, and he did just that."

When the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992, it was the team captain, Mario Lemieux, who led the team to glory, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable playoff performer both years. There is no doubt that the turning point for the Pittsburgh Penguins' dynasty was selecting Mario Lemieux in that 1984 draft.

"Anyone will tell you that winning a Stanley Cup once is tough to do, but winning it twice in a row is very special," added Coffey.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.