We have already written more than once how popular the idea of ​​“everything is for sale, we merge everything we can and get Bedard / Michkov / someone else” is popular with American fans. However, the current draft lottery system, which severely curtails the chances of the worst of the worst, makes these plans rather difficult to execute.

The mid-1990s Buffalo, 2017 Colorado, and 2020 Detroit, some of the worst teams in recent years, have missed their first overall peak each time, though Colorado is unlikely to regret it. But lottery luck smiles at teams that did not plan to be terrible at all and had rather flimsy odds percentages.

But once upon a time, in all American leagues, the first pick in the draft without ceremony was received by the worst team in the league. At one time, this led to huge scandals – due to frank drains, the NBA was forced to introduce a draft lottery back in the mid-80s. Just at that time, most likely the best drafted hockey player in history, Mario Lemieux (Gretzky played in the WHA and was not selected), entered the draft.



He was the best, even when he could not play at full strength.  Why Lemieux is cooler than Ovechkin and Crosby
He was the best, even when he could not play at full strength. Why Lemieux is cooler than Ovechkin and Crosby

Meanwhile, “Pittsburgh” was in a difficult position. The team, which appeared in the league in 1967, was on the verge of bankruptcy seven years later, although things were not so bad on the ice. Then a group of investors saved the Penguins from going broke and possibly moving to Seattle, where they planned to create an expansion team.

Pittsburgh game in the late 70s

Pittsburgh game in the late 70s

Photo: Dick Darrell/Getty Images

Pittsburgh at the turn of the 70s and 80s was the usual middle peasant. However, unexpectedly for many, the Penguins failed the 1982/1983 season, winning only 18 matches out of 80. The team’s attendance collapsed from 11,200 to 8,400 spectators during the year – and this put the club on the verge of another ruin. Since there were no TV deals then, the clubs were very dependent on the box office.

The year before, the Penguins traded their first-round pick, which eventually became the first overall pick that could have been drafted by Steve Yzerman or Pat LaFontaine. Lemieux was no longer to be missed. In his pre-draft season, he scored an incredible 282 points in 70 games, breaking all Quebec league records. The interests of the 18-year-old talent were already represented by Gus Badali, Gretzky’s agent. There was no doubt that Mario would become a superstar.

There was no doubt in Pittsburgh. For the second year in a row, they didn’t repeat the stupidity of actually giving out draft picks for free (for the first pick in 1983, the Penguins got Anders Hakansson and Ron Meighan – have you ever heard these names at least once?). This team needed Mario Lemieux – and they did everything to get him.

Team head coach Eddie Johnston became general manager, and Lou Agnotti, a man who had only 32 head coaching games in the NHL before that, stood on the bench. 20 years after all, Agnotti was not even ashamed of the fact that he was the captain of a ship that had to go to the bottom: “We were not going to lose games on purpose. But if we lost, we didn’t get too upset about it.”

True, in the same conversation with reporters from the Pittsburgh newspaper, Agnotti recalled that once his guys were 3-1 in one of the games. During the break, a surprised general manager burst into the locker room with one question: “What the hell?”. The players understood the hint and then missed five unanswered goals.

Despite all the tricks, the new 1984 Pittsburgh was not the last to meet. They were seven points ahead of New Jersey. The Devils played only the second season under this name – before that they played in Kansas and Denver, but their best result in 10 seasons was 22 wins in 80 games.

Match “Pittsburgh” – “New Jersey” in the fall of 1983

Photo: Al Pereira/Getty Images

This was the same season that New Jersey lost 4:13 to Edmonton, after which Wayne Gretzky did not enjoy the victory, but attacked his opponents, calling them a “Mickey Mouse organization” and accusing them of destroying the whole league. After that, Gretzky flew in so much that the Great has been exceptionally politically correct in his statements for almost 40 years.

At the same time, Devils general manager Max McNab did not plan to start chasing Lemieux at all. McNab grew up in a small village of less than a thousand people, worked his way up to the NHL from the bottom, juggling a job in the minor leagues and selling insurance, and because of this, he did not understand how you could lose games on purpose. The Devils were terrible by nature, not because they wanted it so badly.

Unlike McNab’s principled redneck, Pittsburgh promoted the principle described 25 years later in South Park – “while we tried to play as bad as possible, they trained to become as bad as possible.” The club’s best player, Rick Kehoe, dropped out due to injury towards the end of the season, the most productive defender Randy Carlyle was traded at the deadline for a draft pick and a player who joined the team only six months later. Those Penguins didn’t even hesitate to get 13 goals in the Pennsylvania Derby from Philadelphia.

Goalkeeper Vincent Tremblay has become a living symbol of the sinking of the “penguins”. When he was called to the base, he was number two even in the farm club. But a good game was not required of him – in four matches, Tremblay missed 24 goals, and Pittsburgh lost all these games, as expected. Of the last 20 games, the team won only three and allowed New Jersey to lead them by three points. In March 1984, the teams had a face-to-face meeting, which was won by the “devils”, and Tremblay was at the gates of “Pence”.

The Devils picked Kirk Muller as the second pick, a very good player, but not great, and not even close to being great. Although New Jersey did not receive the best player in the draft, in the next decade the club won as many cups as Pittsburgh – two (plus one more in 2003). McNab’s replacement Lou Lamorello created a team without superstars, but with exemplary defense, with successful exchanges. A little later, another Lemieux, Claude, became one of the symbols of the “Devils”.

Mario Lemieux

Mario Lemieux

Photo: Getty Images

But Pittsburgh got who they wanted. General manager Eddie Johnston told The Hockey News two weeks before the draft: “We have a 99.9% chance of picking Mario. I already got calls from other managers who offered six players for him, but I just asked them to shut up. The journalist agreed: “Pittsburgh” can not afford not to sign it. They were a mediocre team that had 17 of the most colorless seasons since people first decided to race a black disc on frozen ponds.”

Pittsburgh Vice President Paul Marta publicly threatened the local community with the fact that, due to huge debts, the club would be forced to move or go bankrupt if they did not start winning. Lemieux caused a stir in the draft by refusing to wear a Pittsburgh jersey, but it ended well – he scored in the first shift in the NHL.




“One of the greatest goals in NHL history.” A masterpiece from Lemieux in the Stanley Cup Final

Although the club didn’t sniff the playoffs in Lemieux’s early years, thanks to the superstar, attendances doubled in three years and were no longer the worst in the NHL. Then SuperMario made the club a champion, and after another 15 years he again saved from moving by buying it and paying off debts. Devils fans sometimes argue what the club would have been like with Super Mario, but the club lived successfully without him – but Pittsburgh without Lemieux would have been history long ago.

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