May 262010

I wrote this after I had the luck of spending a little time with Mario Lemieux during the summer of 1988.

An hour’s drive northwest of New York in the Catskills, I get the chance of a lifetime, to play right wing for Mario Lemieux. There I am, in my mid-fifties, pot-bellied, weak-eyed, weak-wristed awkward, nervous and slow afoot, trying to keep pace with one of the greatest players who ever lived.

Thanks to Hockey Night in Canada producer Mark Askin, who made all the arrangements, we are there to film Mario, Steve Duchesne, Larry Robinson, Dan Quinn and others, all of whom are guests of the hotel management. In return for a free week long vacation, they agree to spend a couple of hours a day instructing the children of guests at the hotel in the fundamentals of hockey. Their arena is almost laughable—one of the smallest ice surfaces I’ve ever seen–about 100′ by 50′. The day we arrive the players—their instructional chores over– are about to engage in an old-fashioned game of shinny.

“Got your skates with you?” someone says.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I have,” I reply

“Get em on. You can play wing for Mario.”

Moments later, I’m out there and these guys are flying. Click, Click, click. The puck dances from one stick to another. Players weave and bob and fake and deke. They laugh and whoop it up, as if they were kids again, sliding around some frozen pond. Goals pile up and I still haven’t touched the damn puck. These guys change direction so quickly by the time I pivot and turn they are at the other end of the rink. Mario slides a couple of hard passes my way and I lunge for them. They bounce off the blade of my stick and spin away. “Sorry, Mario” I grunt. There’s no reply. I figure he’s too polite to laugh.

I can almost hear his thoughts, though, Did this guy ever play the game? And I want to say, Geez, Mario, I’m 55 years old. Thirty years ago I was a pretty fair skater. I might have been able to almost keep pace with you guys. Now I’m out of gas, with two bricks for hands.

There are some great books written about the incredible contributions Mario Lemieux has made to the game, look for them at you local library or, in Canada, check out: Mario Lemieux: The final period

or in the U.S. Mario Lemieux: Over Time

After a few minutes, I relax and begin to enjoy myself. And when Mario sets me up again, I score. Oh my, that felt good. Mario looked over and grinned. Thanks, Mario. Thank you. Cherry may have called you a floater but to this old fart you’re a hero. You’ve made my day, man.

The following day, their hockey chores done, the players switched hockey sticks for golf clubs. There was a lucky draw and poor Mario drew my wife Joan and me as partners. Several envious people in the room mutter, “Those lucky stiffs.”

We teed up. I had heard all about Mario’s golfing skills. He hits the ball a ton. He has really incredible drives off of the tee. And he was so patient with the McFarlanes as we played like Tiger—Tiger Williams. We dribbled balls off the tee, plunked balls into every creek and bounced balls off trees. Squirrels and birds and fish ran for cover when we approached. The harder we tried, the worse it got. Again, I could read Mario’s thoughts. Yesterday, McFarlane showed me he’s a lousy hockey player. Now he’s wants to prove he’s the pits at golf. We may be out here until midnight.

On the ninth hole, Mario was teeing up his ball when a film crew from Madison Square Garden Sports came running up the fairway. They were shouting and waving their arms.

“Mario, Mario! Wait a minute! We want to get shots of you driving off the tee.”

So Mario stepped back and waited patiently while they set up their camera. When they waved him on, he teed up and drove a ball three hundred yards straight down the fairway. Everyone went “Oooooooh” Joan and I caught up to him after splitting a dozen shots. The camera crew, meanwhile, lugged their equipment up to the green, which was situated dogleg left. When they were in position, someone waved again and Mario drilled a shot 180 yards to the very center of the green. His ball rolled to within five feet of the cup. “We all went “Ooooooh.” After ten or 12 more shots we joined him there, just in time to see him calmly drop his putt for a birdie, despite the presence of a cameraman, a director, a sound man and the heavy breathing of the McFarlanes. Mario plucked his ball from the cup, gave the grateful film crew a grin and a wave, and walked off the green.

I have seen hundreds of hockey players on golf courses over the years and many of them, like Andy Bathgate, Gary Dornhoeffer, Stan Mikita and Dan Quinn–were exceptional but I have never seen one to match Mario.

Here’s part of an interview I did with Mario:

Brian: Mario, some of the criticism you received early in your career must have hurt. Don Cherry calling you a floater and that sort of thing. Did some inner voice say, I’m going to show those people.” I’ll show them the real Mario Lemieux?

Mario: No, not really. I didn’t worry too much about Don Cherry because he makes a living out of being outspoken. He likes controversy. But now he is my buddy, now he has turned around quite a bit when he talks about me. For myself, it was a tough adjustment to make at first. I was only 18 years old when I broke in. I was told that I was not very fast and I think in the last three years I have worked hard on my skating and shooting ability. I think that people have a different view of me now. You know, I just go on the ice and try to do the best that I can, game after game, and get better.

Brian: Most people recognize you as one of the two best hockey players in the world, the other being Wayne Gretzky of course. Tell me about your friendship with Gretzky, and your rivalry with him.

Mario: Well, my friendship comes first. Every time we play together on the Canada Cup team or in an all star game, we talk as much as we can. We are both so busy at those times—so busy with the press–that we can’t talk very much, but he is a very nice guy. I have seen him a number of times in the summer, at golf tournaments and other activities and he is a great guy to be with, very nice to talk to. As for the rivalry, every time I step on the ice with Wayne, it is a great honor, whether it’s to play against him or with him, makes no difference. I certainly give a little extra when he’s around.

Brian: You had an incredible 70 goal season last season, Mario. (1987-88) But what about 92 goals the Gretzky record? Does that seem out of reach, or is that your next objective?

Mario: That is unbelievable, 92 goals in a season. That is something that is going to stay around for awhile, maybe forever. I thought that I had a good season this year with 70 goals. When you take a look at Gretzky’s numbers like 92 goals and 215 points in a season, it is simply amazing what he has done in the past. A few months later, Mario ended the 1988-89 season with 85 goals and 114 assists for 199 points—his best season ever and oh, so close to Gretzky’s marks.

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