Flashback: Sour Grapes – Mario Lemieux, Don Cherry Embroiled in War of Words

Matt Cooke is a little rat, Mario Lemieux is a phony,” For anyone other than Don Cherry those would seem like rather bold proclamations to make.

Cherry, who has made quite a career for himself, giving his unabashed opinions on the current state of hockey and those who play and surround the game.

Sour Grapes – Mario Lemieux, Don Cherry Embroiled in War of Words

It was 2011 and Cherry was referring to Matt Cooke’s history of doling out headshots. He was specifically referencing incidents involving Marc Savard and Ryan McDonagh. After the latter, Cooke was in the midst of serving a 10-game suspension. That suspension included the entire first round of the playoffs. – More on that in a future article.

The second target Cherry placed his vibrantly attired sights on was Penguins Owner Mario Lemieux.

Lemieux has been known by several names over the course of his HOF career “Le Magnifique”, “Survivor”, “Super Mario”, but “Phony”, was one name not usually attached to the savior of Pittsburgh hockey.

What would compel Cherry to include Lemieux in his latest tirade? Was it the first time Cherry had called Lemieux out, in front of millions of hockey fans worldwide?

It was not.

Previous Issues

We need to travel back to 1984 to hear the first pot shot Cherry lobbed in Lemieux’s direction.

It was early in Lemieux’s rookie season when Cherry suggested:  “He’s the biggest floater in the National Hockey League”.

The “he”, Cherry was eluding to was rookie – Mario Lemieux.

It is no secret, as to which type of player fits into the archetype that Cherry favors. A quick look at the title of his video series “Rock’em Sock’em Hockey” pulls that veil cleanly off.

Lemieux (19) was still getting accustomed to playing amongst men in the NHL. He was not afraid to answer the call of an opposing player that took liberties in trying to defend against his torrid attack. Just ask Gary Lupul, whom Lemieux tussled with early in the 1984-85 season if Lemieux was tough.

Source of the Controversy

So what could have raised ire of the former player/coach turned broadcaster?

Perhaps, it was the fact that Lemieux was more focused on putting pucks into the net, then using his 6’4″, 230 pound frame, to reap untold pain and punishment upon those reckless enough to get in his way.

Perhaps it was something more.

Either way, Lemieux selected a very grand stage to address Don Cherry’s comments.

All-Star Game

He chose the 37th NHL All-Star game that emanated from Calgary’s Olympic Saddledome to put his skills on full display. Lemieux also gave the world a glimpse at what mastery was to come in the duration of his career.

Lemieux (22 Goals, 45 Assists in 38 Games) was added to the team by Wales Conference coach Al Arbour. It was a move that surprised many purists around the league. They felt another Penguin – Warren Young, (the rookie goal scoring leader at the time with 31) was more deserving of the honor. Young would go on to finish the season with 40 Goals and 72 Points.

Mario, didn’t disappoint, scoring two goals and adding an assist leading the Wales Conference to a 6-4 Victory over the Campbells Conference in front of a sellout crowd of 16,683 and earning MVP Honors, for his stellar performance. In case you are wondering, Lemieux gave the car to his brother Robert, who was working at a Montreal Grocery store at the time.

When asked about Cherry’s comments, Lemieux simply responded, “That was for him.” He would add, “The Penguins asked me to play offense and not care about my defense”

What a great response.

No wordy rebuttal, no insult laden comeback. Lemieux, just did what he did well – Performed.


He performed at optimal level before the vast assembly of some of the greatest NHL players – Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy, Ron Francis, Raymond Bourque, Scott Stevens and Marcel Dionne. Dionne added “He’s everything they ever said he was.”

That is quite an endorsement.

History tells us that, Lemieux and company would find themselves in the throes of more Cherry diatribes in the years to come; but this was one time that Cherry ended up with a mouthful of sour grapes.

Main Photo: