By Greg Enright
Sixty-six and Ninety-nine. Le Magnifique and The Great One. Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. Each recognized as one of the best players to ever lace up a pair of skates, these two superstars just happened to play during the same era. They combined for one of the most memorable goals in hockey history at the 1987 Canada Cup. The debate still rages as to who was the best.
Unfortunately, however, the two did not play against each other as often as most fans would have liked. Lemieux played for the Penguins in the east his whole career and Gretzky in the west for most of his, meaning matchups pitting the two were few and far between.
The first time they faced each other was on November 6, 1984, when Gretzky was the dominant force in the game, having led his Edmonton Oilers to their first Stanley Cup the previous spring, and Lemieux was the biggest rookie sensation to come along since Guy Lafleur.
The setting was the Igloo in Pittsburgh, which was sold out for the first time since 1982, and this despite it being election night in the U.S. (Ronald Reagan would win his second term in office that evening.) The Oilers came to town with a scorching 10-0-3 record to start the season. The Penguins weren’t doing too badly themselves, riding a 5-5-0 mark, heady altitudes for the worst team in the league the year before.
The superstar confrontation, however, almost didn’t take place. Four deep holes in the ice near the penalty boxes delayed the game for 30 minutes, and Oilers GM Glen Sather was of a mind to postpone the game until a later date when the ice was in better shape. “Who’s in charge of maintenance here?” he thundered later that night. “The guy who runs the ice in this place should be fired.”
Despite such bluster, the puck was eventually dropped and the players who everyone came to see got to it. Penguins coach Bob Berry insisted on playing checking centre Dave Hannan against Gretzky as much as possible, limiting the direct interaction of Lemieux and Gretzky for much of the game.
But both stars had a big hand in the final result. The Pens stayed with the high-powered Oilers toe-to-toe and with just under 10 minutes to go, Lemieux sent a perfect pass across the slot to Warren Young, who banged it home for a 3-2 lead. Alas, the Great Gretzky showed how great he was by firing a Jari Kurri rebound past Denis Herron with only 3:57 to play. The game ended in a 3-3 tie.
Both young guns had nothing but praise for their respective rival. “He played a great game,” said Lemieux of Gretzky. Number 99, for his part, clearly realized just how special a player Mario was going to be.
“He did things that brought people out of their seats. That’s what this city needs and that’s what the National Hockey League needs.”
Greg Enright is a writer, editor and Pens fan since the days of the blue uniforms. Follow him on Twitter @penguinshistory.