Claude Lemieux, who will be inducted into the QMJHL Hall of Fame on Wednesday night, can have a good chuckle now about the junior hockey training camp he attended at Trois-Rivieres in 1982.
It was no laughing matter at the time. “The first few days in camp were pretty scary,” he recalls. “Nothing was easy there. “There were probably 50 kids in camp and the coach made it so difficult that guys were leaving on their own. One day, he had me running on a racetrack pulling a horse buggy behind me, and it was raining, too.”
Lemieux stuck it out and became a star.
In 1984-85, with the QMJHL team in Verdun, he scored 58 goals and assisted on 66 for 124 points in only 52 regular-season games. A separated shoulder kept him out of the rest. He was named to the first all-star team, after he’d shared in world junior championship glory with Canada’s team that winter.
He’d earn four Stanley Cup rings in a tumultuous NHL career.
He goes into the QMJHL hall with Andre Savard and Claude Verret in the players’ category. Guy Chouinard enters in the builders’ category during the Golden Pucks Gala.
Lemieux, 39, a native of Buckingham, Que., lives in Arizona. He’s the president of new Phoenix Roadrunners franchise that will begin play in the ECHL next season.
A charity game April 19 involving NHL players including Jeremy Roenick, Luc Robitaille, Sean Burke and Brad May will help promote his team, and provide hockey fans with a first look at enlarged nets. Lemieux, who also will play in the game, arranged – before stories about the NHL pondering the use of bigger nets – to acquire nets for his charity game that are six inches wider and three inches taller than standard hockey nets. Bigger nets are the way to go to boost offence, he says.
“You can’t really control the size of the goalies’ equipment,” he contends. “It’s always a battle to keep track of who is wearing what, and the size of the goaltenders – they’re six feet four and 225 pounds versus guys who were five-nine and 170 pounds soaking wet when I started . . . but the net hasn’t changed.”
With bigger nets, “Even if you’ve got the biggest pads in the world, you won’t be able to move them across the crease fast enough,” he says.
A recent Arizona State University sports marketing class study showed that what hockey fans want most is more goals.
“Their study and their research showed that increasing net size was the only way to guarantee an increase in goals,” he says.
Lemieux has hired Ron Filion of Montreal as his GM-coach. The two were linemates in midget and junior hockey.
“We kind of lost touch but now we’ve reconnected and we’re doing this together,” says Lemieux.
J.J. Daigneault will be an assistant coach.
Lemieux, a six-foot-one right-winger, was one of the most intense players ever to pull on an NHL sweater. He was a needler, a mucker, a hated opponent, and a cherished teammate.
In 1,197 regular-season games, Lemieux scored 379 goals, assisted on 406, and served 1,756 penalty minutes.
“When I first got into junior hockey, they wanted me to be a tough guy,” he recalls. “I knew I was better than just that.
“I wanted to be more involved – to be an all-around, complete player. I looked up to players who could play the game both ways. That’s why I started wearing No. 32. That was Dale Hunter’s number and I looked up to him. He was a pest everybody hated. I already had that in me so that’s pretty much how I developed that style. I was pretty successful with it.”
He was usually at his best in the playoffs, when he turned it up a notch. In 233 games, he scored 80 goals, assisted on 78 and served 529 penalty minutes.
In 1986, after playing the majority of his games in the AHL at Sherbrooke, he joined the Montreal Canadiens for 10 games and then helped them win the championship by scoring 10 goals in 20 playoff games.
Lemieux also earned rings in 1995 with the New Jersey Devils, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in the process, 1996 with the Colorado Avalanche, and again in 2000 with the Devils.
He last played in the NHL with the 2002-03 Dallas Stars. In 2003-2004, he appeared in seven Swiss league games with EV Zug.
He was on Canada’s teams in the 1987 Canada Cup, missing the finals with an ankle injury, and the 1996 World Cup.
“Those are memories that will last a lifetime,” he says.
He hasn’t officially retired.
“I haven’t signed any retirement papers,” he replies when asked if his NHL playing days are done. “I played in Europe and was thinking if things got going I’d play again but . . . ”
He’ll concentrate on the Roadrunners now, and shake his head in dismay from a distance over what has happened in the NHL.
“It’s very disturbing and sad,” he says of the cancelled season. “I’m worried for the players and for the game.
“I don’t see anybody winning after having lost a year and I don’t see anybody gathering leverage after missing a year.”
Now that he’s on the ownership side, he says, he understands what lost sponsorships and lost season tickets mean to the bottom line, and how the bottom line affects collective bargaining.“You can’t make the same offer you made five or six months before because the revenue has shrunk,” he says.Like most hockey fans, he’s hoping something will get done in time for next season to begin on time.“It has to be done soon to give an opportunity to teams to go back out and create interest again and get the fans excited about the game again and for the players to get back in shape,” he says.