A series where I post some thoughts about favorite cards. Previous cards in the series are available here.
I know, I know, what a jerk, right?
Many people remember Claude Lemieux this way, in large part from his actions in a playoff game against Detroit where he hit Kris Draper from behind, sending him face-first into the boards. Draper sustained numerous facial injuries as a result.
"Not the only dirty play from that guy", you might be saying. And you'd be right.
But hear me out.
Any good story needs heroes and villains, and Claude Lemieux, despite what most of us so readily remember, played both roles throughout his NHL career very well. That's quite rare, and I think you could even call it remarkable.
Consider these numbers:
1,215 games played
1,777 penalty minutes
58 game-winning goals
Also consider that across his career he put up five 30-goal seasons, and came very close to four more (29, 27, and 27, and 26).
They're not exactly Hall of Fame numbers, but then there's also this:
Claude Lemieux's name appears on the Stanley Cup four times. He won it with Montreal as a rookie in 1985-86, with New Jersey in 1994-95, with Colorado in 1995-96, and with New Jersey again in 1999-00.
And he wasn't just along for the ride on any of those championship teams. In that rookie season with Montreal, for example, he scored 16 points in 20 playoff games, including 4 game-winning goals. In 1994-95 he led the entire league with 13 playoff goals, taking home the Conn Smythe trophy as MVP. And even in 1996-97, a season when his Colorado Avalanche lost in the semifinals to the Detroit Red Wings, Claude put up 13 goals to tie for the NHL lead, four of those again being game-winners.
Let's dive even a little deeper. Here are the ten players who've scored the most game-winning goals in the Stanley Cup playoffs throughout their careers:
Brett Hull: 24
Wayne Gretzky: 24
Joe Sakic: 19
Claude Lemieux: 19
Maurice Richard: 18
Mike Bossy: 17
Chris Drury: 17
Glenn Anderson: 17
Patrick Marleau: 16
Jaromir Jagr: 16
Did you catch the guy who's fourth from the top, with 19?
That number doesn't happen by accident. That's a coach putting a player out there when the team needs a goal, and when a championship is within reach. Just look at all the other names on that list, my goodness; every one a brilliant, clutch player. Now try being a guy with that ability while simultaneously playing a rough, sometimes over-the-edge game that makes you the cowboy in the black hat.
I don't think many players would want that role. I don't think many players are capable of even playing that role.
What's the point of all this?
To be clear, I'm not asking you to soften your stance on the guy. You can still hate him all you want.
But as you look at young Claude Lemieux on that rookie card and see his laser focus as he bears down on the goal—in pre-game warmups—just remember there's more to the picture.
And for playing both the hero and villain better than just about anyone in the page-turning story that is professional hockey, 1987-88 O-Pee-Chee #227 has a spot in my box of favorite cards.