On June 19, 1984, Mario Lemieux signed his first contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins and ended weeks of speculation that left many within the city and organization wondering if Lemieux would ever wear the black and gold sweater. After refusing to wear it at the NHL draft because a contract had not yet been reached, a city which previously paid scant attention to hockey was suddenly all ears.
It was no surprise that Penguins General Manager Eddie Johnston selected Mario Lemieux with the first overall pick at the NHL Draft on June 9, 1984, which emanated from Lemieux’s hometown, Montreal. But, after Johnston announced Lemieux’s name, Lemieux elected to not join team officials for the ceremonial handshake and photo op.
“I didn’t want to go to the table because the negotiations are not going well, I didn’t want to put on a Pittsburgh sweater, because they don’t want me bad enough,” Lemeiux told the press.
The bold tactic suggested to Lemieux by agent Gus Badali, (whose stable of stars included Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman, and Paul Coffey) was pure genius. By putting the pressure squarely on the Penguins, Badali gained leverage to negotiate the strongest deal possible.
The 4000 fans present at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena to view the historical event were a little miffed. They wanted to see Pittsburgh’s (future favorite) adopted son consummate his selection. When asked why he bothered to attend the draft if he just planned to slight Johnston and the Penguins, Lemieux answered, “Because of my family and my public, I had to come here. That’s why I came.”
Declining to take the stage was a move Mario later admitted that he regretted.
Let’s Make A Deal
Lemieux wanted an attendance bonus if the Penguins averaged more than 10,000 fans per game. That became the sticking point. Looking back, it’s hard to fathom a scenario where that clause would not have been executed given the mystique surrounding Lemieux and his 282 points (133 goals, 149 assists) with the Laval Voisin of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
It took about two weeks for the two sides to work out the deal.
Then-Penguins President Paul Martha deemed the contract, “the biggest since the inception of the franchise.” Very few details emerged regarding term or length of the deal, other than Lemieux would be compensated about 700,000 for two seasons of play.
34 years later and it appears Lemieux still cannot shake the feeling from his first deal, “I can’t tell you how happy I am to finally be in Pittsburgh,” he said.
Well, Mario, millions of Penguins fans cannot tell you how happy they are that you came to Pittsburgh, either.