Best of the pest: Remembering the incomparable Claude Lemieux

We take our hockey jerseys pretty seriously around here, so it was with much consideration and deliberation that I decided to make my first personalized NHL jersey a New Jersey Devils' Claude Lemieux No. 22 sweater many moons ago.

(My father, as a former Islanders fan, used to extol the virtues of rats like Ken Linseman, so my affinity for one of hockey's preeminent pests was implicitly endorsed.)

Simply put, he was a player I had never seen before as a young hockey fan: a tenacious, borderline sinister shadows who had the unrivaled ability to agitate opponents with words and deeds ... but most of all, with some of the most clutch scoring the Devils franchise had ever seen.

Lemieux is calling it quits (again, sort of), following his inspiring but ineffective comeback with the San Jose Sharks last season. For a League whose best pests are too busy cracking jokes about former paramours or biting opponents to get their names on the Stanley Cup four times, it's a moment to remember what a exceptional player Lemieux was -- for better or worse.

Lemieux came to New Jersey in 1990 after having won a Cup and worn out his welcome in Montreal; a deal that saw Sylvain Turgeon head to the Habs in a karmic correction for the Devils trading Pat Verbeek to the Whale for Turgeon.

If Jacques Lemaire gave the Devils structure, Claude Lemieux helped give them snarl. True, he was a former champion; but he was also the embodiment of the scrappy, devilish (no better word) underdog attitude that the team needed to adopt in order to finally break through as a franchise while playing in the shadow of Manhattan.

John Fischer's superlative tribute to Lemieux's time in New Jersey on In Lou We Trust covers that impact thoroughly:

If you're new to the team, all you need to know is that "Pepe" knew what it took to succeed on the ice, knew how to upset the opponent enough to take advantage (He's the greatest pest I've ever seen play), and almost literally raised his performance in the postseason.  And without him, the Devils don't win their first Stanley Cup in 1995 and maybe they also don't win their second in 2000.

Claude Lemieux played 423 regular season games as a New Jersey Devil, took 627 penalty minutes, scored 142 goals and had 155 assists for a total of 297 points.  In the post season, he played 82 post season games, took 171 penalty minutes, scored 34 goals and had 23 assists for 57 points, won one Conn Smythe Trophy, and two Stanley Cups in New Jersey.

For my money, there was no greater Lemieux moment than in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers back in 1995. The score was tied at 2-2 in a series tied at 2-2, and the goal with 44.2 seconds left against Ron Hextall remains one of the most critical ones of that Cup run:

If Philly fans could have listed every human alive they'd least like to see score that goal at that moment, Claude would have made the top five easy.

Of course, this being Claude Lemieux, he also started the play by holding Eric Lindros's stick and hauling him down.

But that's the dichotomy of Lemieux: Playoff hero and the guy whose bitter contract demands the following season necessitated his departure from New Jersey. Clutch performer, and the guy who maimed Kris Draper to spark a blood feud between the Avs and the Wings. A guy with four Stanley Cup rings who hung on to the dream for so long that he ended up wearing this and making a comeback in his early 40s.

Today's NHL is filled with polarizing players, but perhaps only Chris Pronger comes closest to Claude Lemieux for the extreme swings between hockey hero and notorious thug in his career. The Rivalry, a Rangers/Islanders blog, sees Lemieux as a warts-and-all immortal:

Quite frankly, if the Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2012 does not include Claude Lemieux, something is seriously wrong. And how fitting would it be if Lemieux were to be inducted alongside his former Avalanche teammate Joe Sakic? Of course, there will be plenty of detractors who will call Lemieux a dirty player. These are the same people who gushed over players like Bobby Clarke and Scott Stevens, so there you go.

Eric McErlain had similar thoughts when Lemieux made his comeback with the Sharks:

I understand the "hateration" when it comes to the player Lemieux was, but to call him a player of "marginal skill" isn't warranted. Lemieux has 379 career goals. In his era, you could say that's not exactly Hall of Fame-type numbers, but it is still good enough for the top 100 all-time. We don't call that marginal. In fact, it's more than respectable. I shouldn't need to remind anyone that Clark Gillies managed to get his ticket stamped to the Hall while scoring 60 fewer goals than Lemieux as he collected four Cup rings with the Islanders.

And that my friends, is where Lemieux excels, with a Jeter-like ability to be in the right place at the right time. Lemieux has four Stanley Cup rings of his own, more than enough to plug up both his ears and two nostrils while he's got his feet propped up on that Conn Smythe Trophy he won with the New Jersey Devils in 1995. Better yet, Lemieux is a certified hero in every place he won a Cup (Montreal, Colorado and New Jersey twice) and there's little doubt in my mind the fans in each of those cities would welcome him back with open arms if they thought he still had something to contribute.

In the end, he had nothing in the tank, but the thought here is a salient one: Claude Lemieux is the guy everyone loathed until he arrived on your roster (some later destinations in his career excluded).

If he had not been a Devil, there's no doubt I would have treated him with begrudging respect but also an intense hatred of his villainy. (I also would have gotten a Scott Stevens jersey instead.)

But he was a Devil, and I'll continue to proudly wear his name on my back for being a vital builder of this franchise's success.

And to tick off every single Cam Neely fan I know.

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