Sunday, June 21, 2015

Two Claude Lemieux Jersey Cards

Sometimes, a series of events ring a bell enough to remind you of a subject, or a person. In my case today, it was the lull between the end of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the start of free agency, where this year's top available forward will be regular-season average player but playoff (and particularly Game 7 beast), Conn Smythe winner Justin Williams which, coupled with the ongoing Arizona Coyotes saga, making a perfect storm that led me to thinking about Claude Lemieux.

Lemieux is a touchy subject for many - and has been pretty much since he debuted in the NHL in his third attempt, in 1985-86, winning the Stanley Cup with the Montréal Canadiens and a whole bunch of young studs including Conn Smythe record holder (having won it three times) Patrick Roy, as well as youngsters Guy Carbonneau, Gaston Gingras, Chris Chelios, Mike McPhee, Brian Skrudland, Stéphane Richer, Kjell Dahlin, David Maley, Mike Lalor, Craig Ludwig, Randy Bucyk, John Kordic and Petr Svoboda, established stars Bobby Smith, Mats Naslund and Chris Nilan, and seasoned veteran Hall of Famers Larry Robinson and Bob Gainey. Lemieux scored 10 goals and had 6 assists in 20 games that postseason, the biggest goal coming in a Game 7 overtime against the Hartford Whalers.

From the get-go, he had a knack at getting under opponents' skin. Well, opponents and coaches. Pat Burns famously told team medic to not attend to him faking an injury on the ice by saying ''Qu'il crève!'' (literal translation: ''Let him die!'') in the 1989 Stanley Cup Final, just months after a run-in at practice where Lemieux, trying to take on a leadership role, asked Burns to ease up on the powerplay unit which had gone on drills for a while, with Burns retaliating by putting his stick's blade under Lemieux's chin with what seemed like the intention of slicing it.

But the rugged forward was mostly known for infuriating opponents. In the 1986-87 season, the Habs were involved in three bench-clearing brawls in two games, the first two occurring against the Québec Nordiques in the infamous Good Friday (''Vendredi Saint'') game, and the third against the Philadelphia Flyers in the playoffs.

Lemieux had a habit/superstition of shooting a puck into the opponent's open net after the pre-game skate, and the Flyers, as a tough team trying to mark their territory, had told him to stop. So of course, he and fellow trouble-maker Shayne Corson waited for the Flyers' players to leave the ice and go to their dressing room to get back onto the ice with a puck and shoot it in the net, prompting all 24 Flyers skaters to head back onto the ice and engage in a veritable alleyway fight with the 20 Habs players - with no referee in sight.

Obviously, most people remember him for the dirty hit on the Detroit Red Wings' Kris Draper:
... and his turtling instead of answering the bell when Darren McCarthy went to fight him in retaliation.

And that hit - and his reaction to it - was what brought the Avs-Wings rivalry onto the next level for the next half-dozen years, as both teams were Cup contenders and frequent postseason adversaries. However, we tend to forget that it happened the year the Colorado Avalanche won their first Stanley Cup (the year they moved into town, no less), and that it was Lemieux's second consecutive championship, having won the Cup and the Conn Smythe the previous year with the New Jersey Devils where he scored 13 goals to lead all playoff skaters. He won another one in Jersey in 2000.

He was the fourth player ever to win Cups with three different teams, and the fifth to win consecutive ones with different teams. He has twice the number of Cups as Mario Lemieux (let that sink in... and remember Mario played with Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Paul Coffey, Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy, Mark Recchi, Ulf Samuelsson, and regularly had multiple 100-point scorers on his team), and two major victories with Team Canada, a Canada Cup (1987), a World Juniors gold (1985), and was on the runner-up team at the inaugural World Cup (1996).

He also got a few Selke Trophy votes three times, once finishing in sixth place. But after slowing down while with the Phoenix Coyotes and splitting a season between Arizona and the Dallas Stars in 2002-03, he retired... only to return for a final swan song in 2008-09, playing 18 games with the San Jose Sharks. All told, he ranks third in playoff game-winners with 19, behind Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull (at 24 apiece), ahead of the likes of Joe Sakic, Maurice Richard, Mike Bossy and Glenn Anderson.

The first time he retired, he became team president of the ECHL's Phoenix RoadRunners, and participated in the Spike TV show Pros vs. Joes; the second time he retired, he participated in CBC's Battle Of The Blades in 2009, finishing as runner-up, and in 2011 became chairman of the board of directors at GRAF, a hockey and figure skating equipment manufacturer from Alberta.

So while most of the hockey world remembers him as the Avs' pest, and people in Jersey seem to have forgotten his stellar play for them, most Montrealers remember him as a member of the Canadiens, a local boy (he grew up in Buckingham, Quebec) who made the big team and won the Cup at home.

I'm halfway, because the Avs were my mid-90s team. So I didn't mind when I pulled card #GJ-CL from Upper Deck's 2013-14 Series 1 set (part of the UD Game Jersey sub-set), though getting two the same day may have been slightly exaggerated:
It shows him wearing the team's white (then-home) uniform with matching game-worn jersey swatches (one seemingly more used than the other), at the old Forum, back when board ads were less prevalent and pervasive.

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