Just about everyone knows Wayne Gretzky is the greatest hockey player of all time. (I mean, come on, it’s right there in the nickname.) But there are still those who’ll argue for a select few counter-candidates, such as Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Sidney Crosby … or Mario Lemieux. And in Lemieux’s case, there are plenty of numbers — and more especially, stories — to back it up.
For the former, we could point to Super Mario’s status as the NHL’s all-time leader in goals created per game, ahead of even the Great One himself. For the latter, we could pull up any of countless quotes from teammates who credited Lemieux with elevating their careers. (As Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille once said: “A fire hydrant could score 40 goals playing on Lemieux’s line.”) But both angles met up in Lemieux’s most remarkable performance, arguably the greatest comeback in sports history, which began exactly 30 years ago tonight.
Fresh off two consecutive Stanley Cup victories with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992, Lemieux was at the peak of his powers heading into the 1992-93 season. Although back injuries had limited him to just 149 out of a possible 240 regular-season games over the previous three seasons, Lemieux still led the league in points per game when he did play, and he’d earned two playoff MVP trophies for his incredible 78 points in 38 games while driving Pittsburgh’s pair of championship runs. Now, Lemieux finally appeared to be healthy — or at least, as healthy as he was going to be1 — and he was making opponents regret ever taking up the sport of hockey. He scored an astonishing 36 points during the first month of the season (while playing all 11 of Pittsburgh’s games), then tacked on 65 more (while only missing a single game) over the next two months.
By New Year’s Day 1993, Lemieux had 101 points in his team’s first 39 games. Not only did that lead the league by a staggering 34 points over Pat LaFontaine of the Buffalo Sabres, but it also put him on track for 218 points by season’s end. If Lemieux continued to play nearly every night at the same pace, he would have a great chance to beat Gretzky’s seemingly unbreakable single-season scoring record of 215 points, set seven years earlier.
But it was around that same time that Lemieux noticed that a lump on his neck, which he’d been ignoring for about 18 months, was getting larger. It was a swollen lymph node. While doctors were able to remove it, testing later revealed that Lemieux had Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer that attacks the lymphatic system. On Jan. 15, 10 days after playing in the Penguins’ 6-2 win over the Boston Bruins, Lemieux found himself sharing very personal news at a press conference in front of reporters and TV cameras.
“I could hardly drive home because of the tears,” he said of the day he received the diagnosis. “I was crying all day.”
Though the prognosis for Lemieux’s form of cancer was better than most — doctors at the time gave him a 90 to 95 percent chance of recovery — he would need to undergo radiation treatment five times a week for at least four weeks, possibly longer. And while he might make it back to the ice for the playoffs, contemporary reports noted, the side effects of the treatment (particularly the fatigue) cast doubts on Lemieux’s ability to bounce back and play again at a high level. So forget about Gretzky’s record, the MVP race or the scoring chase, it seemed.
“I'll be back when I’m 100 percent cured,” Lemieux said at his press conference. “Hopefully, that will be in time for the playoffs, and I can help us win another Stanley Cup. But first things first.”
While Lemieux was away for treatment, rivals chipped away at his huge lead on the points leaderboard, which had been 31 on the night of his final game. LaFontaine, who had 67 points through the end of December, added 47 more over the next two months — catching Lemieux on Feb. 14 and opening up a 10-point lead by March 1. Others were closing in as well, with Adam Oates, Doug Gilmour, Pierre Turgeon and Steve Yzerman all pulling within five points of Lemieux though the end of February.
But Lemieux’s recovery was proceeding along its best-case trajectory, putting him a month ahead of schedule. After 22 treatments, he had progressed to the point where, remarkably, he was planning his return to the ice. And the scoring race with LaFontaine was at the top of his mind.
“I thought about it even during radiation,” Lemieux told Sports Illustrated. “I was determined to come back and regain the lead.”
On the morning of March 2, 1993, Lemieux underwent his final radiation treatment in Pittsburgh. The Penguins’ staff booked him on a commercial flight to Philadelphia, but the plane was delayed because of bad weather. So Lemieux called in a favor and arranged a private flight instead: Nothing was going to stop him from playing that night. And so, despite not having practiced — much less played a game — in roughly two months, there Lemieux was, receiving a standing ovation from the Spectrum’s normally hostile crowd after skating out for pregame warm-ups.
What happened next was straight out of Hollywood. Early in the second period, Lemieux received the puck in the corner and skated in from an angle most players wouldn’t try to score from. Obviously, Lemieux wasn’t most players — and he wristed the puck past bewildered Flyers goalie Dominic Roussel for his 40th goal of the year.
A minute and 35 seconds later, Lemieux picked up an assist on a power-play goal by Kevin Stevens. After battling cancer for months, uncertain about ever playing again in 1993, it took less than half a contest for Lemieux to record his 34th multipoint game of the season. And from there, the scoring chase was on.
During the final six weeks of the regular season, Lemieux played one of the most absurd 20-game stretches of hockey in NHL history. Despite being weakened by the radiation treatments, he scored 30 goals (that’s 1.5 per game) and notched 26 assists, good for 56 points and 23.4 goals created — the most by any player in any 20-game stretch since the end of the high-flying ’80s.
After briefly being caught by Oates, Turgeon and Yzerman early in his comeback, Lemieux quickly sped away from them and then chased down LaFontaine as well, passing him with a three-point game on March 28 — his seventh game with three or more points in 12 tries since returning. While LaFontaine would battle back to pass Lemieux again with a four-point game of his own on March 31, Lemieux responded with two goals and an assist on April 1 to take the lead back for good. By the time the regular season ended, Lemieux had not only erased his deficit in the scoring race, but he finished a distant 12 points clear of LaFontaine in the final ranking.
And, oh by the way, did we mention that Lemieux’s comeback overlapped with a 17-game winning streak for the Penguins, which still stands as an NHL record to this day?
Over the course of his whole career, improbable comebacks sort of ended up being Lemieux’s thing. After missing all of the 1994-95 season due to back pain and the residual effects of radiation therapy, he returned in 1995-96 to lead the league in scoring once again, posting one of the best goals-created seasons ever when adjusted for league scoring environments. Then, after he retired in 1997, Lemieux stepped in as an owner to save the Penguins from bankruptcy (and from potentially leaving Pittsburgh). A couple of years later, Lemieux took to the ice again as a player — naturally, he scored three points in his first game back, at age 35, after nearly a four-year layoff — and yes, he easily led the league in points per game that season and the following one.2
But it was Lemieux’s dramatic return from cancer, and the epic ensuing points battle, that most defined Super Mario’s superhuman blend of skill and determination. Perhaps LaFontaine, his scoring rival, put it best in an interview with NHL.com:
“He’s one of those special players who comes around once in a blue moon. To cap off that season the way he did and the way he did it [was] incredible,” LaFontaine said. “Just going through what he went through made it that much more of a special story for so many people.”
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