With the start of the NHL season only weeks away, fans are left with the feelings of optimism and hope that a new season brings. Those who have watched NHL Network the past few months were also left with feelings of nostalgia as they watched cup-clinching games from the NHL’s past.
It is often said that life is not a destination, but a journey. My nostalgic feelings for hockey made me think about some great journeys in recent memory, and I can never forget the magic of the Pittsburgh Penguins and their 2000-2001 season.
Although the Penguins failed to win their division (3rd in the Atlantic) and failed to win the Stanley Cup (eliminated in five games by the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals), their season captivated the hearts of hockey fans everywhere with the return of Mario Lemieux.
Lemieux – 35 years old at the time – last played in the 1996-97 season and retired at the age of 31 after capturing his sixth scoring title with 122 points in 76 games. Even “Super Mario” had his doubters when he announced his return to hockey from a nearly four-year hiatus. Nevertheless, his return sparked more interest in NHL hockey in America; Lemieux’s return was THE big story in sports at the time. Many debated whether or not he could play at a high level after such a long time.
Throughout Lemieux’s incredible NHL career, he often had a flair for the dramatic. In his first career game, he scored on his first shot on his first shift after making future Hall-of-Famer Ray Bourque look foolish. On December 27, 2000, Lemieux made his return to the NHL as the Penguins hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs. In his first game back, Lemieux registered an assist just 33 seconds into the game on a Jaromir Jagr goal. Before the night was over, Lemieux would register two more points as he finished his first game back with one goal and two assists for three points.
Lemieux’s goal was vintage Lemieux: a hard one-timer on a nice centering feed by Jagr. Jagr had drawn several Leafs players towards the boards when he cut away from the middle with the puck; as he turned around, he spotted a wide-open Lemieux and fed a perfect pass as Lemieux blasted the puck past goaltender Curtis Joseph.
While the 35 year-old Lemieux was not the human highlight reel he was in the 1980s, he still possessed unrivaled hands, vision and anticipation for the game. If he wanted to speed the game up, he could speed up the tempo; if he wanted to slow the game down and turn it into a chess match, he did that. Usually, you were at Lemieux’s mercy if he had the puck. Even past his prime, Lemieux was one of those special talents who could control the ebb and flow of the game to his liking.
In the first few weeks of his return, Lemieux was dominating game after game. Lemieux registered 19 points in his first eight games before finally being held pointless by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
After the Ducks kept him scoreless, Lemieux went on yet another tear with 16 points in his next nine games before being held scoreless by the Minnesota Wild. Lemieux criticized the Wild’s use of the trap and the clutching and grabbing on the ice; Wild coach Jacques Lemaire then suggested that Lemieux should remain in the owner’s box if he cannot handle the game on the ice. Three days later, the Penguins defeated the Wild by a score of 2-1. Lemieux scored both goals.
Lemieux’s dominance was exactly what hockey needed that year. Hockey was struggling in television ratings and attendance was down; Lemieux’s return and dominance turned those figures around. Hockey was relevant in America again!
Lemieux’s return also turned around the figures of Jagr’s season. With Lemieux’s presence in the lineup, Jagr also went on a scoring tear and captured his fifth scoring title with 121 points in 81 games; Lemieux finished his comeback with a remarkable 76 points in only 43 games (his 1.77 points per game led the NHL). Lemieux did miss several games, however. After Lemieux’s return, only Jagr topped him in scoring that season (86 points in 45 games).
Jaromir Jagr’s 2000-2001 scoring
2000-2001 total: 52-69-121 in 81 games (1.49 per game)
Without Lemieux: 21-20-41 in 38 games (1.08 per game)
With Lemieux: 31-49-80 in 43 games (1.86 per game)
Despite playing in only 43 games, Lemieux’s 76 points ranked 26th among all NHLers. The great irony of Lemieux’s high-scoring return to the NHL is that the league set a new record with 186 shutouts in the 2000-2001 season. At that time, the previous record was 160 shutouts in the 1997-1998 season (Lemieux’s first year of retirement).
The sport of hockey is loaded with many wonderful memories. Many remember Lemieux for his dominance in the 1992-1993 season while battling cancer; they may remember that Lemieux registerd a mind-boggling 51 points during the Penguins’ NHL record of 17 consecutive victories.
With all due respect to Lemieux’s accomplishments in his career, I believe his 2000-2001 season had a greater impact on NHL hockey than any other season he played. Prior to his return, hockey’s television ratings were sagging and scoring was reducing while shutouts were happening at an all-time high. After Wayne Gretzky’s 1999 retirement, the league lacked that one true superstar they could market to generate more interest in hockey. Lemieux’s return changed all of that.
Not only did Lemieux’s return drive up interest in hockey in the United States again, I believe his return and his effortless scoring may have helped usher in the zero-tolerance mentality we see in today’s NHL for obstruction penalties. While the NHL still has a long way to go in regards to reducing cheap shots and blows to the head, they have cracked down very well on obstruction fouls.
Would the NHL have made the necessary changes if Lemieux had not returned? I shudder at the thought of what might have happened if he never returned to the game. If the NHL had continued along its path of allowing players to get away with clutching and grabbing and other forms of obstruction, the league would have continued its downward spiral in the television ratings. I sometimes wonder if Lemieux’s return also had an effect on the NHL’s push for a salary cap to help small-market teams compete.
Regardless of whether or not Lemieux’s return had a large impact on these things, the league would be in a much worse place today if not for the salary cap and the crackdown of obstruction fouls. How much Lemieux’s return affected these factors is debatable; however, there is no denying that 2000-2001 was a magical season for the NHL and its fans.