Topps All-Stars: Gretzky vs. Lemieux
Updated: May 16
The rivalry between Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux that played out through the latter half of the 1980s may have been best captured by a series of under-appreciated sticker inserts from Topps.
From 1985-86 to 1989-90, Topps included a sticker insert in every pack of cards. They were standard card size and printed on similar card stock. Each set features a total of 33 stickers, 12 All-Stars and 21 team logos.
The team logo stickers also included jersey numbers and pucks. Kids were encouraged to add their jersey numbers to their own hockey helmets, along with one puck for every goal scored.
The 12 All-Star stickers represent the First and Second Team All-Stars from the previous season. They make up for a lack of All-Stars included in the regular Topps and OPC sets for this five-year period. With Gretzky and Lemieux both perennial All-Stars, they appear in almost every set. Let's take a closer look at how they stack up, head to head, in these sticker sets.
1985-86 Topps All-Star Stickers
Gretzky was at the height of his powers when Lemieux debuted in the NHL during the 1984-85 season, leading the league in scoring with 208 points. It was the third time he scored 200 or more points in a season. While Lemieux set a record for most points by a rookie with 100 – good enough for 13th in league scoring – he finished a whopping 108 points behind Gretzky. Then again, Jari Kurri, the second-leading scorer that season with 135 points, finished 73 points behind his Oilers teammate. That's just how dominant Gretzky was.
Note: This is the only set in which Lemieux does not appear.
1986-87 Topps All-Star Stickers
In his second NHL season, Lemieux finished second in the scoring race to Gretzky. The most prolific scoring season in history saw Gretzky's tally 215 points, 74 more than Lemieux's 141. It marked the fifth season in a row that Gretzky won the scoring title by a margin of 65 points or more.
1987-88 Topps All-Star Stickers
Though injuries limited Lemieux to just 63 games in his third season, his 107 points were good enough for third in the scoring race, one behind Jari Kurri's 108. Gretzky, however, continued his dominance with 183 points, 75 clear of the pack. In an interesting twist, it would be the one occasion on which Gretzky and Lemieux played together that would change the dynamic of their rivalry.
Playing on the same line for Team Canada at the 1987 Canada Cup, Gretzky and Lemieux were incredible. The series-clinching goal, scored by Lemieux and assisted by Gretzky, is an iconic moment in Canadian sports history. Gretzky finished first in tournament scoring with 21 points (3G, 18A) in nine games, while Lemieux finished second with 18 points (11G, 7A) in nine games. Gretzky was named tournament MVP, though many felt that honour should have gone to Lemieux, not only for his final goal heroics, but for leading the tournament with 11 goals.
1988-89 Topps All-Star Stickers
After his performance in the Canada Cup, Lemieux seemed even more motivated, taking his game to even greater heights. He was able to overtake Gretzky as the league's leading scorer, winning the Art Ross Trophy for the first time and bringing Gretzky's run of seven consecutive scoring titles to an end. He also took home the Hart Trophy as league MVP, breaking Gretzky's streak of eight straight. To be fair, Gretzky only played in 64 games that year, opening the door for Lemieux to overtake him.
1989-90 Topps All-Star Stickers
In their most controversial head-to-head season, Lemieux scored 31 more points than Gretzky, 199 to 168, on the strength of scoring 31 more goals, 85 to 54. Lemieux won his second Art Ross Trophy and was named to the First All-Star Team, yet Gretzky was awarded the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
How that happened is still a mystery. I am in the camp that says Lemieux was robbed. The argument often used for Gretzky is that he managed to go from a Stanley Cup champion calibre team in Edmonton to a perennially underperforming team in Los Angeles and still maintain his incredible level of play. While true, that same argument could just as easily apply to Lemieux, whose Pittsburgh teams had always been among the weakest in the league.
Just how epic was this rivalry between Gretzky and Lemieux? They were not only the two best scorers of their generation, but of all-time. Gretzky's career points-per-game average is a mind-boggling 1.921, but Lemieux's is a close second at 1.883. Among the NHL's top 20 all-time scorers, the next highest belongs to Marcel Dionne, at 1.314.
Even among the game's great scorers, Gretzky and Lemieux are in a category of their own.