Had Hartford Tanked, Mario Lemieux May Have Been a Montreal Canadien

Earlier this week, Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette did a feature on what is now an iconic photo in hockey lore.

The photograph, which was taken in March of 1981, depicts Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur, after registering his 1000th career point. What makes it of even more significance is the young man in the stands, directly behind the bench. Through his numerous contacts, Stubbs confirmed something I had suspected over five years ago. The young man was indeed future star Mario Lemieux.

In Stubbs’ column, it is acknowledged that the Molson family would give these tickets to select individuals. The fact that this midget star, who was tearing up the competition at the time, got these at random is far from a coincidence.

The truth is the Canadiens had been scouting Lemieux, on the advice of then coach Claude Ruel for some time and knew of his potential to be the next great hockey superstar. It’s very likely they used the opportunity to court young Mario, giving him a chance to see his boyhood idols in action.

The only problem for the Canadiens would be how to pick up Lemieux, who was destined to go first overall,  at the 1984 NHL Draft. That would be in the hands of GM Irving Grundman, who later that year would make his best attempt at a move made by his predecessor, Sam Pollock.

Pollock’s moves to attain Lemieux’s idol, Lafleur, are of course legendary in the hockey world. So now it was Grundman’s chance to show the hockey world why he was the man to do the job, and not Scotty Bowman.

As the 1981-82 season began, the Hartford Whalers had made the playoffs just once, since joining the NHL from the WHA. They would not see post season again until 1986. As a perennial bottom feeder, they were one of the teams likely to fetch Lemieux.

At the same time in Montreal, there was a lot of grumbling among the Canadiens players. In the time referred to as “Noirceur” by Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson, new Habs coach Bob Berry was attempting to implement a more “defense first” format to a club that had just finished first in the Norris Division the season prior.

This did not sit well with the likes of Lafleur (he would adapt to it), and certainly not centre Pierre Larouche. The popular Canadiens centre, who could be very vocal, had just come off a 50 goal season two years previous in 1979-80.

His frustrations with Berry’s system led to periods in the press box. A five game string upstairs in  December was the breaking point for him. After having been benched in a road game in Boston, Larouche made his feelings loud and beery on the bus ride to Hartford. The media ran with the tirade, but Grundman let the incident slide…..until that night in the Hartford Sheraton.

The rule of thumb at the time was that the hotel bar was off limits to players and only for coaches and management. According to Larry Robinson’s first biography, “Pierre not only went right to the hotel bar, he did everything but pee in all four corners to stake out his territory.” Grundman and Berry tried to get him to leave, but Larouche, chomping on a stogie, refused. A tirade on a bus was one thing, but something like this, in public, was embarrassing in the organisation’s mind.

Grundman was now forced to play his hand. He had to get rid of Larouche, and fast. Unfortunately most of the other GMs in the league knew what was going on and were not up for giving much in value in return.  It was first thought that the Quebec Nordiques would get their hands on Larouche. Wouldn’t that have been great as the Battle of Quebec was getting underway?

Instead Grundman managed to get a decent deal from Hartford. a week after the Sheraton incident. Larouche (21 points in the 22 of 33 Habs games he dressed for), the Canadiens 1st round pick in 1984 (Sylvain Cote) and a third round pick in 1985 went to Hartford for their 1st round pick in 1984, a second round pick in 1984 and a third round pick in 1985. The Whalers draft record to that point was rather weak (See Sylvain Turgeon ahead of Pat Lafontaine and Steve Yzerman in 1983!), so GM Larry Pleau probably had no idea who Mario Lemieux was and was likely content to get some scoring to compliment Ron Francis, along with a straight up swap of picks.

Larouche’s offense never faltered in Hartford, where he had 50 points (25 goals) in the remaining 45 games of the 1981-82 season and never went under 20 goals for the next four seasons.

The Canadiens now had a prize draft pick to work with in 1984, and a chance to right the wrong he had made by taking Doug Wickenheiser first overall in 1980. The problem for Grundman was that time ran out for him to parallel the wheeling and dealing mastery of his predecessor, and he was replaced in the 1983-84 season by Serge Savard.  Just taking control of the Canadiens helm, Savard didn’t have time to ensure that Hartford finished dead last in his inaugural season as GM. The fact that the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New Jersey Devils were so pathetic that season made it virtually impossible for any GM to make that happen

So in the end, the Penguins, who always tank at the right times,  squeaked into 21st place by three points and took “Super Mario.”

Savard fared well in that draft, surprising everyone with the defecting Petr Svoboda with that Hartford pick, then picking up the likes of Shayne Corson, Stephane Richer and some kid named Patrick Roy.