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Gretzky Had Great Impact on Lemieux

April 16, 1999

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ To understand the impact Wayne Gretzky had on a young Mario Lemieux, remember this: Lemieux’s No. 66 was Gretzky’s No. 99 turned upside down.

Lemieux, the six-time NHL scoring champion and prospective Pittsburgh Penguins owner, was only 15 and virtually unknown outside Quebec when Gretzky took an interest in him.

Gretzky was the first NHL star to take Lemieux to dinner, to a nightclub, to treat him as an equal. Apparently, Gretzky was as good a talent scout as he was a scorer.

That first meeting with Gretzky created such an impression that Lemieux asked to wear No. 99 in junior hockey. Told that might not be wise _ to hockey fans, there was only one No. 99 _ Lemieux settled on No. 66.

``He’s meant a lot to game, he’s really changed the game and changed the approach of many young players,″ Lemieux said Friday, shortly before Gretzky announced his retirement.

Fittingly, Gretzky’s final game on Sunday will be against Lemieux’s old team, the Penguins.

``All young players wanted to be like him. He really changed the game in the early 1980s with the scoring titles and the records and the Stanley Cups and being a great team guy,″ Lemieux said of Gretzky, who won 10 NHL scoring titles and nine MVP awards.

Lemieux, who has not watched much hockey since retiring two years ago, tuned in Thursday to watch the New York Rangers’ 2-2 tie at Ottawa.

``I watched Wayne’s last game in Canada as well as his very emotional press conference and I was overcome with emotion,″ Lemieux said. ``On one hand I am very happy for Wayne; he has accomplished so much in his career and he is able to leave the game on his own terms, which is very special.

``On the other hand, like all of his fans, I am sad to see hockey lose its greatest player and its greatest ambassador.″

The two did not always maintain their early friendship during a 13-year NHL rivalry that prompted numerous debates over which truly deserved to be called the Great One.

Lemieux was discouraged in 1987 when Gretzky was chosen over him as the MVP of the Canada Cup, even though Lemieux had 11 goals in seven games against the USSR. And Lemieux was nearly in tears in 1989 after Gretzky beat him out for the NHL MVP award that Lemieux felt he deserved.

Privately, Gretzky felt Lemieux had too many lazy work habits early in his career and didn’t fully use his enormous talents. Gretzky had to work hard to dominate and wasn’t impressed when others didn’t do the same.

Gretzky also wasn’t happy when Lemieux dumped agent Bob Perno, who, with Gus Badali, also represented Gretzky. Lemieux wasn’t even among the 700 invited guests to Gretzky’s wedding to Janet Jones.

And for players so similar in production, with 16 NHL scoring titles between them, they were strikingly dissimilar as people.

Lemieux was tall and physically dominating; Gretzky was smaller and more resourceful. Gretzky was popular with sponsors, corporate types and the media; Lemieux was private and preferred playing golf to filming commercials or giving interviews.

But they were too much alike as scorers and as stars to ever become enemies.

Even before Lemieux’s first year in the NHL in 1984, the two hosted a charity golf tournament with an admission fee of ... what else, $66.99. And Gretzky attended the game in which Lemieux broke Gretzky’s single-season junior scoring record, nearly missing an Edmonton Oilers’ curfew to do so.

Of the 1987 Canada Cup in which Gretzky, the biggest star in hockey, served mostly as Lemieux’s playmaker, Gretzky said, ``We found out that we weren’t just friends. We were icemates. We understood each other.″

``My fondest memory of Wayne is undoubtedly, the Canada Cup,″ Lemieux said Friday. ``Practicing with and playing alongside Wayne for six weeks was the turning point in my career. He showed me how to win and for that, I am eternally grateful.″

Even Gretzky wonders if Lemieux, who quit at 31 rather than Gretzky’s 38, might not have become the Greatest One if No. 66 hadn’t played lost a significant chunk of his career to back injuries and cancer.

``I want to wish Wayne the very best in his post-playing career and when things calm down, I look forward to seeing him on the golf course,″ Lemieux said.

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