The Pittsburgh Penguins knew what they had to do. And the means by which they did it will be talked about until the end of time. A once-in-a-lifetime player awaited the team who would finish last in the league.
Was it moral? Hell. No. Was it the right thing to do to save a team? Absolutely.
Older fans will recall the controversy surrounding the end of the 1983-84 season where the Penguins tanked to secure the services of a player that, in his final season of QMJHL play, broke records and posted 133 goals, 149 assists, and 282 points. That player was French-Canadian phenom, Mario Lemieux. In fact, in his last game of the regular season, Lemieux needed three goals to tie Guy Lafleur’s QMJHL record of 130 goals. Yeah, Mario scored six times and added six helpers in a monstrous 16-4 victory, according to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He finished his 3-year QMJHL career with 562 points (247 goals, 315 assists). Before the 1984 NHL Entry Draft, Lemieux announced he would play for whoever drafted him, even if that meant coming to a team that was in financial ruin with no clear plan for the future. The Penguins had not made the playoffs since 1982, and had not had a winning season since 1979. It was Mario or bust.
He and his agent were at an impasse with the Penguins and could not come to an agreement on the contract. Draft night got even spicier when the Penguins called his name as the first overall pick. First, Lemieux bucked tradition and did not shake Eddie Johnston’s hand or put on the Penguins sweater. The horror. He then told reporters that he was upset about the contract negotiation, and said that “Pittsburgh doesn’t want me bad enough.”
The young superstar ironed out his contract dispute and went on to have a pretty nice debut:
And uh, he carved out a nice career for himself as well:
Mario and the Record Books
|Shorthanded goals, season (13 in 1988–89)|
|Only player to score 30+ power play goals in two different seasons.|
|Most power play points in a single season: (80)|
|Highest empty net goal game ratio (1 in every 27.7 games)|
|Highest empty net goal average career among players with 400+ goals: (5%)|
|Most goals scored or assisted on, season (57.3% of team's goals, 1988–89)|
|Only player with three 8-point games (regular season & playoffs)|
|Only NHL player to ever score 5 goals 5 different ways in one game (even-strength, PP, PK, penalty shot and empty net)|
|Highest career goals per game average in playoffs: (.710)|
|Most points in a single all star game: (6)|
|Most power play goals for a single franchise (236)|
|Only player with 70+ power play points in a single season, (1988: 80; 1989: 79; 1996: 79)|
|Highest Adjusted Goals Created in a Single Season, 1988/89, 64.36 (Adding Goals scored to 0.5 Assists, then multiplying by team goals divided by teamgoals plus 0.5 times team assists)|
|Other Shared NHL Records|
|Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky occupy all of the top ten places in the NHL records for points and assists in a season.|
|Most goals in a period: (4) Shares record with 12 others, most recently Patrick Marleau (January 23, 2017)|
|One of only two players to score 10 or more shorthanded-goals in two different seasons; the other is Wayne Gretzky.|
|All-Star Game Records|
|Career goals (13, shares record with Wayne Gretzky)|
|Goals in a single-game (4 in 1990, shares record with Wayne Gretzky)|
|MVP awards (3, shares record with Wayne Gretzky)|
|Goals in a single period (4, shares record with Tim Kerr)|
|Goals in a single game (5, shares record with Newsy Lalonde, Rocket Richard, Darryl Sittler, Reggie Leach)|
|Points in a single period (4, shares record with Tim Kerr)|
|Points in a single game (8, shares record with Patrick Sundstrom)|
|Penguins Team Records|
|Goals, career (690)|
|Assists, career (1033)|
|Points, career (1723)|
|Longest goal-scoring streak (12 games)|
|Longest point streak (46 games)|
|Goals, season (85 in 1988–89)|
|Assists, season (114 in 1988–89)|
|Points, season (199 in 1988–89)|
|Goals, game (5, four occasions including playoffs)|
|Assists, game (6, three occasions, shares record)|
|Points, game (8, three occasions including playoffs)|
As the years have gone by, measures were put in place by the league to ensure that tanking never became a regular occurrence. In 1995, the league introduced the Draft Lottery system which is still in use today.
Members of the Penguins organization during the 1983-84 season have been brought under the microscope numerous times since 1984 to discuss their tactics leading up to the draft. TSN even published a documentary about the entire saga in 2014 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the whole thing.
Head Coach Lou Angotti has gone on record and admitted that the team did, indeed, purposely lose games to draft Lemieux, though former GM Eddie Johnston has never made such a comment.
Bonus factoids: the 1984 NHL Draft also saw the Penguins select Doug Bodger and Roger Belanger with picks 9 and 16 respectively, marking the only time in franchise history that Pittsburgh selected more than one player in the first round, according to PittsburghHockey.net.
Other notable players featured in the 1984 draft include: Brett Hull, former Penguin Luc Robitaille, and Patrick Roy, all of whom are Hall of Famers. Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine was also drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in Round 4.
Since there are about a million, share your go-to Mario moment in the comments below!