This afternoon, Dave Molinari and I will fly to Vancouver, British Columbia, to cover the NHL Draft. And even by Friday, when the first round gets going, there'll still be a fair amount of uncertainty about how it'll go.
Not so 35 years ago.
Let's loosen the format a little today and launch the time capsule back to the winter of, oh ... 1984 ... and check out a certain 6-foot-4 center prospect from the Montreal suburbs playing for Laval of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League:
Yeah, that guy.
For those of us from that generation, we've seen that spin countless times. That's in part because there's so stunningly little footage from Mario Lemieux's final year in juniors, even though he put up 282 points. But it's also because it's ... well, awesome.
Amid all of Mario's magnificent traits, the one that always tantalized above the rest was the stickhandling. A big man in that day just never did this sort of thing. A big man was the checker. Or the net-front presence. Or the banging up-and-down winger. But this sort of wizardry, with this reach, this dexterity -- watch all the different contortions of the blade alone -- was quite literally without precedent in hockey history, with all due apologies to the graceful but not nearly this complete Jean Beliveau.
Then there was the shot:
A story to share: Mario once blasted a slap shot past the Oilers' Tommy Salo, from way out at the point. This was at the Civic Arena, after he emerged from retirement.
After the game, some dummy cub reporter asked, “Did you see something on the far side there, Mario?”
Those who know Lemieux will attest that, for all his warmth and charity, he’ll flash an acidic side upon sensing something he doesn’t like. And he most assuredly didn’t like this question because what came back was laced with sarcasm: “No, I saw short side and went far side.”
Ow. I wanted to die.
As the session ended, the dummy cub reporter asked the seasoned vet reporter what that was all about.
“I think,” Molinari explained, “that he got tired a long time ago of people asking him if he meant to do what he just did.”
Ow. I wanted to die twice.
Mario was, as Russia's legendary coach Viktor Tikhonov once proclaimed, the greatest goal-scorer the sport's ever seen. His finish was precise, powerful and without parallel. And yeah, I'm sure he meant to shoot it where he did on that poor teenager in the clip above.
One more from Laval:
Mario would demonstrate his business acumen much later in life, but even at this age, he was quite the salesman. He didn't just deke. He'd sell the deke. And he wouldn't do it for show. He'd make it matter.
This clip's my favorite because it's the only one that illustrates my favorite aspect of watching him play: He controlled the entire rink. Whether he did or didn't have the puck, all the pieces would move the way he wanted.
In this case, the first dude dressed like a Capital bit hard on the fake slap shot -- full windup for the hard sell -- then the second dude bit just as hard when Mario lowered his chin as if he was about to burst by him. Unfortunately, the footage doesn't show the lucky recipient of the blind, backhand pass headed his way. But you can barely pick up that this trailer is a lefty, which explains why Mario would angle his blade with just enough extra English -- sorry, Francais -- to lead the recipient.
I'd bet anything that guy skated right into that thing without worrying for a millisecond how he'd have to receive it.
No draft pick was ever easier to make. None will ever top it.
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