Mario Lemieux won again.
Hockey fans made the right choice when they voted his five goals five different ways on New Year’s Eve 1988 the greatest moment in the NHL’s first 100 years. It came down to that ridiculous performance and one overtime Stanley Cup-clinching goal by Bobby Orr in 1970.
Come on. No contest.
It started with 64 moments chosen by a panel of broadcasters and writers and included Wayne Gretzky’s 802nd goal to pass Geordie Howe on the all-time list and his 50 goals in 39 games.
It only fits that the most talented human to ever lace on a pair of skates would own the greatest moment in the history of the sport. (Professional hockey isn’t better than Team USA over USSR in 1980).
I was at Mellon Arena that night, and I can’t remember when or if I was aware of how special it was at the time. You would have to have seen Lemieux’s career to that point to understand that five goals weren’t all that astonishing.
That was the year when he made a mockery of the sport with 199 points. It is still the best season I have ever seen any player have in any team sport and it’s why I call Lemieux the best player I have ever seen in a team sport.
His linemates were Bob Errey, who never scored more than 26 goals and Robby Brown, who was a career minor leaguer except for the two years when he played with Lemieux and scored 49 and 33 goals.
Quite a difference between that and the Hall of Famers who played with Wayne Gretzky when he set the record at 215.
Lemieux could have won for a few other moments. How about having a season interrupted by Hodgkin’s Disease and still winning the scoring title? Think about that for a minute. It was amazing when it happened, but, looking back, it’s almost too ridiculous to believe.
And if Gretzky’s 50 goals in 39 games were worthy of consideration, how about Lemieux’s 30 goals and 26 assists in 20 games that won him the scoring title by 12 points?
He was 12 points behind Pat LaFontaine when he came back.
And how about the 35 goals he scored in 43 games in 2000-2001?
Goals were much tougher to score by then, and Lemieux did it at the age of 35 after retiring for three and a half years. There is nobody in the history of sports who has done anything close to that.
Pittsburgh Home to Sports’ Greatest Moments
And, by the way, adding Lemieux’s greatest moment means that the greatest moments in three of the four major sports happened in Pittsburgh.
I was there for two of them.
Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception just might be the most famous moment in NFL history, and Bill Mazeroski hit the greatest home run in Major League Baseball history.
My dad had one Steelers season ticket in 1972. On the 50-yard line. He’d been a season ticket holder since 1946. Notice I said TICKET, not tickets. He went to Steelers games to watch the game. By himself. Got there with a few minutes to spare before kickoff. No tailgating. No socializing. Just watched the game.
His one ticket allowed him to buy an extra playoff ticket and he gave it to me.
I sat by myself in the end zone upper deck for the Steelers-Raiders game.
We were going up the ramp to the Fort Pitt Bridge when I said to my dad, “OK. Which was better, this or Maz’ home run?”
Yep, he was there for that, too.
He thought for a minute and then said, “This.”
After a few years had gone by he changed back to the Mazeroski home run.
Sixteen years after the Immaculate Reception and 28 years after Maz, he was at Mellon Arena to see Lemieux score all five ways.
Most sports fans would love to have one moment like that. I wonder how many were there for all three.
The big difference between the Immaculate Reception and the other two is that, if you were in Pittsburgh when the Immaculate Reception happened, you didn’t see it on TV. It was blacked-out locally.
Another reason why it would be hard to find somebody who saw all three in person.
The scary thing is that there’s just as much chance of five goals five ways or an Immaculate Reception as another World Series played in Pittsburgh.