NHL99: Don’t underestimate Marcel Dionne with a meaningless asterisk on the Stanley Cup

Welcome to NHL99, the athleteCountdown to the 100 greatest players in recent NHL history. We rate 100 players but we call it 99 because we all know who is No. 1 – it’s 99 places behind No. 99 we have to find out. Every Monday through Saturday through February we will unveil new members to the roster.

Ernie Banks. Dan Marino. Charles Barclay. Don Mattingly. Patrick Ewing. Barry Sanders.

As a sports fan, what do you think of when you hear these names?

I’d like to think your mind is filled with memories of amazing moments, historic accomplishments, highlight reels, records, and milestones. If you’ve been lucky enough to see at least a few of them play with your own eyes, I hope it’s these moments that spring to mind. If they are just names from your past, perhaps they evoke the most important old events, or better yet, the stories passed on to you by the older sports fans in your life. I’d like to think so.

But I know there’s a good chance you’re thinking of something else, something that unites these names. You think of an intimidating qualification that is pinned to a superstar’s career as indisputable as The Scarlet Letter: They never win the capital letter.

Not many good players ever win tournaments. Even some great ones. But unless you’re Ted Williams, you won’t reach true legend status if you don’t win. This championship ring doubles as the key that unlocks the gates to immortality, and no entry is permitted without it.

All of which brings us to Marcel Dionne, ranked #20 on our list of the greatest players of the NHL’s modern era.

Dion is many things to hockey fans. One of the greatest scorers of all time, with 1,771 career points, more than Phil Esposito, Steve Yzerman or Mario Lemieux. Four times All-Star. Two-time winner of the Lester B. Pearson Award, now known as Ted Lindsay, as the best player in the league as voted by his peers. His eight 100-point seasons, the third most of all time. The star beat rookie Wayne Gretzky to the scoring title in 1980, becoming the last player to do so for eight years. The man who inherited the mantle of franchise player from Detroit’s Gordie Howe. The Kings’ all-time leading scorer to this day.

And yes, he is probably the greatest NHL player to never win a Stanley Cup.

Our voters think so. We still have 19 names on this list, but spoiler alert, Dion is the last retired actor we’ll see without at least one episode. You could make a case for Joe Thornton, sure, or Jarome Iginla. Brad Park and Borg Salming in the race. But as great as those players were, I don’t think it’s even close. Among the stars not named to the Stanley Cup, Dion stands head and shoulders above the rest.

And I hate that it’s an essential part of his legacy. So let’s talk about it, hopefully I can convince you guys to stop doing it to the cool guys.

(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Dion’s NHL story begins in the 1971 amateur draft. He’s one of two emerging French-Canadian stars in the race to be the top draft pick, a pick owned by the Montreal Canadiens. The other is winger Guy Lafleur, and this is the Canadians’ pick. Dionne finishes second, to the Detroit Red Wings.

Let’s stop here. Dion, like every star player of the recruiting era, was not given a choice about where to begin his career. He was entered into the draft, with the right to whichever team he plays for. Canadians are the trophy holders. The Red Wings were coming off a season in which they won 22 of their next 70 games.

Does anyone want to argue that Marcel Dionne doesn’t win a trophy if he’s drafted by the Canadiens instead of the Wings? Does he not win many? If he went to a team managed by Sam Bullock and Scotty Bowman, already had young stars like Ken Dryden, Serge Savard, Yvan Cournoyer and Guy Lapointe, and was about to draft Larry Robinson in the second round of the same 1971 draft, would he not match the five that Lafleur won?

Of course he does. Dion’s lack of trophy rings has nothing to do with character, leadership, or any other qualities we want to assign to “winners” in the world of sports. He was one draft pick away from the Dynasty. Instead, he went to the Ned Harkness-era Red Wings, because that’s how the system works. He still does.

As a fun side note: Bullock apparently came close to cutting Harkness off the second overall pick and leaving the draft with both Lafleur and Dionne. If this deal really took place, the mind boggles. Marcel Dion, the star who could never win, may have retired with too many rings to fit on both hands.

But she didn’t, and Dion was exiled to Detroit, where the dark with Harkness was underway. Dion lived up to the hype and then some, scoring 366 points in 309 games over his first four seasons, finishing as a Calder Finalist in 1971-72 and eighth in Hart voting in 1974-75. That fourth year, while Dionne was breaking the amateur single-season franchise record with 121 points, the team’s next top scorers were Danny Grant, Nick Lippett, and Bill Hogabaum.

Somehow, Dion couldn’t drag that crew to the Stanley Cup. A black mark on his resume, in fact.

Well, well, star players can’t decide where to start their careers, and some are stuck with struggling franchises with no hope of winning. But we all know a lot of these players are complacent, happy to toil in a last-place team as long as they can cash in on a big contract. Wouldn’t the real winner try to get out of this bad situation by force?

well sure. Except Marcel Dion did too.

Ned Harkness was a very successful figure in college hockey and no doubt quite a nice guy, but as an NHL GM tasked with navigating the Red Wings into a post-Howe future, he was pitiful. Desiring a chance at winning — and of course, a big raise along the way — Dion took advantage of the WHA threat and became one of the first NHL stars to force a deal away from a team that still held the rights to it. His favorite destination was Los Angeles, a team that came off a 105-point season but lacked the kind of top talent to take the next step. Dion signed with the Kings, forcing a trade for the Red Wings. They did, not getting much in return, and one of the brightest young hockey stars headed to Los Angeles

Dion debuted with a 94-point season, then followed that up with his first 50-goal season in 1976-77, finishing with 123 points and earning first-team All-Star honors for the first time. His best run came over the three seasons from 1978 to 1981, which saw him score 170 goals and 402 points, and he finished as a Hart Finalist and All-Star all three years while beating Gretzky in 1980’s Art Ross.

The Kings teams were good. But while they have won a handful of preliminary rounds, they have never had a continuous playoff run. They lost to Don Cherry’s Bruins twice, and bumped into an Islanders team in 1980 that was on the brink of a professional sports record 19-game winning streak. Dion was one of the game’s most recognizable stars, but a championship was elusive.

It wasn’t entirely clear cut at the moment, but by the time he accepted Art Ross’ debt, the ground had shifted in the NHL. Gretzky will take over, and his users will soon follow. The Kings would begin to fall back, though not before what marked the most memorable playoff performance of Dion’s career. In 1982, now concentrating on his familiar Triple Crown streak with Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer, Dion led the Kings to a five-game defeat of the Gretzky Oilers that included a miracle in Manchester.

By this point, Marcel Dionne has spent a decade posting offensive numbers that few players have ever matched. He outclassed practically every other star in the league, including Lafleur. He has been named the NHL Most Valuable Player by his peers twice. And he just took on Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers at full strength and performed a miracle to beat them.

no winner? So what do we do here?

Let’s rephrase the question: Why do we do this?

Sports fans mean. Why is winning big an obsession for us when it comes to ranking and rating players? Why do we love throwing away the accomplishments of guys who did everything you could ask for but weren’t in the right place at the right time to win a championship?

Part of that is obviously the importance we place on tournaments in the first place. We were told they were all that mattered. In the hockey world, no one cares who wins the Presidents Trophy and players are taught that even winning a conference isn’t so important that they shouldn’t even bother touching a trophy.

But does this mean that one player can be responsible for winning and losing?

In some sports, sure, at least to an extent. A single star on an NBA roster, where he can be one of five players on the floor for the vast majority of every game, can have an enormous impact on his team’s fortunes. So does the NFL quarterback, as it’s easily the most important position in the sport. The MLB’s starting pitcher sits four days out of five, but at least he has tremendous control over half of the game when he plays.

But hockey? A sport whose fans love to anoint it as the best team game? Even a goalkeeper can only do so much. A skater who plays maybe 25 minutes per game? We know better, right?

And we do. But then we forget the lesson, or ignore it, so that we can underestimate a player like Thornton, Roberto Luongo or Sedins, or shake our heads at how patchy Iginla’s legacy was. We know it’s bullshit, or we should. But we play anyway.

Part of me thinks there is something deeper going on here. I think hockey fans are afraid to admit how random the modern era has become, with rampant parity and relatively low-scoring games. There are 32 teams, half of which make the playoffs, and harassment is common. Even if your favorite team does everything right, and builds a true contender while staying power-wise, how likely is it to actually win the Stanley Cup?

I don’t think we want to know. I think we realize we’re not going to like the answer.

So we tell ourselves that winners find a way, and we pretend that a true superstar can lead his team to the promised land by sheer force of will. And if that superstar has to force a better team at the end of his career, that’s okay. Just make sure you don’t leave without a ring.

Screw this. enough already. Let’s learn to appreciate greatness—to truly celebrate it—without any asterisks.

Marcel Dion was a greatness.

He followed up the Manchester miracle with 56 goals in 1982–83, his fifth consecutive 50-goal season (tied with Brett Hull and Phil Esposito for fourth-longest streak in league history). He would play with the Kings until the 1986-87 season when he was dealt to the Rangers at the deadline. In 1987-88, in his last full season at the age of 36, he scored 31 goals and 65 points in just 67 games. When he retired in 1989, only Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky had more points.

And no, he never won a Stanley Cup. He didn’t get out in the second round, in fact.

so what. Appreciate greatness wherever you are lucky enough to find it. Ring or without a ring, Marcel Dion was one of the greatest of them all.

(Top photo: Denis Brodeur/Getty Images)

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