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Mark Madden: 35 years later, Penguins’ drafting Mario Lemieux No. 1 was both easy, complicated | TribLIVE.com
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Mark Madden: 35 years later, Penguins’ drafting Mario Lemieux No. 1 was both easy, complicated

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The Penguins’ Mario Lemieux plays during his rookie year of 1984-85.

Sunday was the 35th anniversary of the Penguins drafting Mario Lemieux.

That might sound like an easy decision to make. Ultimately, it was.

But there were a few complications.

General manager Eddie Johnston had to quietly maneuver the Penguins into finishing last overall in 1983-84.

OK, so maybe he didn’t do it so quietly.

For example, goalie Roberto Romano won a few starts, and got sent to the minors. Replacing him was Vincent Tremblay, who went 0-4. His goals-against average was 6.02.

“We wanted to see what he can do,” Johnston said then.

Tremblay did exactly as expected. Nay, hoped for.

The Penguins finished with 38 points. New Jersey had 41. Mission accomplished.

Quebec, Minnesota and Montreal made huge bids for the Penguins’ pick.

The Nordiques offered all three Stastny brothers and their first-round pick (15th overall). Peter Stastny, the best of the trio, was 27 and had just compiled a 119-point season. He finished his career with 1,239 points in 977 games and is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The North Stars dangled all 12 of their draft choices that year. Their top selection was 13th overall.

The Canadiens offered an impressive package of players and draft choices reportedly topped by center Guy Carbonneau, who would go on to win the Selke Trophy three times as the NHL’s top defensive forward.

But Johnston preferred the notion of a center who could score goals, not prevent them — and who could sell tickets, too.

Montreal’s bid also included the fifth pick overall. Canadiens management asked Johnston for a chance to better any offer made by another team.

But, Johnston said, “I went to watch him play (in the Quebec Major Junior league) a few times, and it was a very easy decision. Every time you went to watch him, if he didn’t get seven or eight points, it was an off night for Mario.”

The idea of the Penguins trading the first pick overall seems ludicrous, but it happened fairly often in that era. Good teams fleeced bad teams by offering them the chance for immediate upgrade via veterans.

Montreal won the Stanley Cup in 1971 and ‘79, yet had the first overall choice in those years. (The ’71 pick yielded Guy Lafleur courtesy of the Oakland Seals.) Philadelphia won the Stanley Cup in ’75, but selected first that year. They took Mel Bridgman (who?) and haven’t won a Cup since.

The Canadiens had known about Lemieux for several years. He demolished youth competition in his native Montreal almost from the moment he donned skates.

So, in 1981, they made a deal to get Hartford’s first-round pick in 1984. Hartford finished fourth-to-last the season before (1980-81). The Canadiens hoped the Whalers’ troubles would worsen and deliver Lemieux to Montreal. Hartford got Penguins great and future Lemieux confidant Pierre Larouche as the key component in that swap.

But the Whalers came in fifth worst in 1983-84. Their 66 points (there’s that number) dwarfed the Penguins’ 38.

So, Quebec, Minnesota and Montreal couldn’t make Johnston budge.

Neither could Ken Schinkel, the Penguins’ scouting director.

Schinkel, a former Penguins player and coach, reportedly preferred Kirk Muller, a forward projected to go second in the draft behind Lemieux. All the usual clichés applied: Tougher, grittier, a better two-way player, not French, etc.

Johnston ignored Schinkel. Muller went second to New Jersey and had a decent career: 959 points in 1,349 games. But his resume says minus-147 while Lemieux’s says plus-114. So perhaps Muller wasn’t a defensive wizard.

Johnston also ignored several in owner Edward J. DeBartolo’s organization who wanted to try a quick fix by dealing the pick. But, as Johnston said, “Mr. DeBartolo was at Mario’s first practice and he said, ‘Thank God you didn’t listen to any of those people.’ ”

Johnston selected Lemieux. But contract negotiations with the Penguins were at an impasse. At the draft, held at Montreal’s Forum, Lemieux refused to shake Johnston’s hand or don the Penguins sweater.

But Lemieux signed 10 days later. Once he put that Penguins jersey on, he never took it off. Good thing, too, or this column would appear in the Kansas City Star.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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