One of the greatest things about the 1987 Canada Cup was that we got to see Mario Lemieux achieve his potential. For it was in that tournament that he arrived in the same stratosphere of hockey stardom as Wayne Gretzky.
Since he was a teenager, Lemieux had everyone drooling over his ability. He had the size and natural skills that Gretzky could only dream of. If there ever was a player who could catch some of Gretzky's scoring records, it was Mario.
Early in his career Lemieux languished with the lowly Pittsburgh Penguins. The team seemed to just accept defeat many nights. Without great leadership, it looked like Mario might never learn what it would take to harness his potential, and until that happened the Penguins would never develop into a great team. And Mario, despite his wondrous natural abilities only matched by perhaps Bobby Orr, might never have developed into the great player he became.
'87 Canada Cup
That all changed at the 1987 Canada Cup. And as a result his career and the fortunes of the Pittsburgh Penguins changed, too.
No one - not Mark Messier or Dale Hawerchuk and especially not Gretzky as many people think - physically took Mario aside in that tournament and taught him how to win. Just by being in the same atmosphere as such leaders and by watching and noting what these superstars did to prepare themselves and their team for victory, Lemieux learned what it would take to achieve his potential and be a winner.
Mario began to emulate the work ethic and commitment, and as the tournament went on, he was rewarded with greatness. He ended up scoring 11 goals in just 9 games. The 11 goals is a single tournament record. Despite playing in just the one tournament, his 11 goals ranks fifth on the all time Canada Cup goal scoring leader board. His 18 points was only bettered by Gretzky's 21 in the same tournament for a one tournament best. That one tournament outburst ranks Lemieux ranks eighth on the all time scoring list, despite playing in far fewer games than most of the others.
More importantly Lemieux scored both game winning goals for Canada in the best of three finale against the Soviets. Both rank among the most famous goals of all time. In game two he snapped up a cross crease pass from Gretzky to end a two-overtime marathon. And we all know what happened in game three. With a little over a minute left he took a soft drop pass from Gretzky and put the puck over Sergei Mylnikov's glove to clinch the championship. Only Paul Henderson’s heroic 1972 Summit Series goal ranks higher in the memories of Canadians.
"Scoring the winner in game two and then in game three of the finals in the 1987 Canada Cup tournament are memories I'll cherish for a long time," says Lemieux. "That whole tournament turned my career around. I saw what it took to win, to be a championship team. Seeing how talented players who had won the Cup before - guys like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey - work so hard every day was a true learning experience. Playing with such great players for five or six weeks also gave me a lot of confidence, and my career took off. "
It certainly did. Lemieux became an unstoppable offensive force that would win two Stanley Cups. The only thing that could stop Mario the Magnificent was his health. Serious injuries such as a chronic bad back coupled with a bout with Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer, would cause Lemieux to miss much time during the 1990s, including all opportunities to represent Canada internationally. Mario turned down chances to play in the 1991 Canada Cup and 1996 World Cup of Hockey, and had officially retired several months before the opening up of the Olympic games to NHL professionals in 1998.
Three years into retirement Mario rediscovered his love for the game. Completely healthy, Mario would make a legendary comeback in 2000-2001, taking the NHL by storm.
Out Of Retirement For Olympic Gold
2001-2002 was not as smooth sailing for Mario. He had developed a chronic hip condition that limited him to only 6 goals in 24 games and would eventually cost him the remainder of the NHL season. Lemieux, now also an owner of the Penguins’ team, put his own teams’ fortunes behind his personal aspirations as he was motivated by the opportunity to once again play for Team Canada – this time at the 2002 Olympic winter games in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Even at less than 100 percent health Lemieux proved he was still the best player in the world. And as team captain, Lemieux was determined to lead Canada back to Olympic gold medal glory for the first time in 50 years.
The rest of the story will one day will be as legendary as Lemieux himself. Lemieux was instrumental in the round robin game against the Czech Republic. Czech goalie Dominik Hasek had had Canadian sharpshooters snake-bitten for several years, but he had never faced off against Lemieux in that time. Lemieux scored twice in a 3-3 round robin tie to lift the proverbial monkey off of the Canadians’ back.
That game really helped the Canadians turn their to-that-point lacklustre Olympic showing around. The Canadians got better and better and wound up in the gold medal game against the hosts Team USA.
There were many great performances in that gold medal game, including Lemieux’s. He made the play of the tournament when he let an intended pass to him go through his legs much to the surprise of the American defensemen and goalie. The puck, as Lemieux fully knew, would continue past to a streaking Paul Kariya who would bury it in behind American goalie Mike Richter.
Later on Lemieux inexplicably missed what should have been the gold medal clinching goal as he rang the shot off of the goal post. Though he was shocked more than anyone, it turned out to be a moot point, as Canada would go on to capture Olympic gold by a score of 5-2.
“This was the chance of a lifetime, to play in the Olympics. To do something great for your country is awesome,” said the proud Canadian captain.