Trying to measure lost potential can be horribly cruel.
Pittsburgh sports fans are suckers for a great debate: What if the Steelers drafted Dan Marino? What if Barry Bonds threw Sid Bream out at home?
The "what if" discussion regarding Mario Lemieux almost always involves his health and the number of games he could not play.
The debate rarely begins with "imagine a young Lemieux playing alongside veteran Quebec-native, Michel Briere."
Pittsburgh's first general manager, Jack Riley, said Briere expected to retire around the time the Penguins were winning their first Stanley Cup.
"When we tried to sign him, he wanted more bonus money." The extra money was an additional $1,000 on top of the basic $4,000 offered as a signing bonus. ""It's not really that much extra money, because I'll be playing for the Penguins for the next 20 years,'" as Riley recalled a conversation with Briere in 1969.
Pittsburgh coach Red Kelly was certain the Pens had a superstar: "He was showing me moves you can't put into a hockey player. He was tough as nails." Briere was one of three Penguins to play all 76 regular season games.
Catch A Rising Star
In 1969-70 Briere was third on the team in scoring, with 44 points (12 goals, 32 assists). On November 1, 1969, Pittsburgh's rookie center scored his first NHL goal by beating Minnesota North Stars' goaltender Ken Broderick at the 15:15 mark of the third period.
He raised his game in the playoffs, leading the team in scoring with eight points. Briere netted the first overtime goal in franchise history on April 12, 1970. Briere scored the game-winner - and series clincher - at 8:28 of the first overtime period against the Oakland Seals in front of 3,028 fans at the Oakland Coliseum. The sweep of the Seals was the first playoff series victory for the Penguins.
The Penguins finished just two victories short of the Stanley Cup final, losing to St. Louis in the semifinals.
Briere finished the playoffs with five goals, including three game-winning goals, and was named the Penguins' rookie of the year.
Automobile Accident Injures Star
Briere returned to Quebec to marry his childhood sweetheart Michele Beaudoin. Briere and Beaudin, who had a 1-year-old son, Martin, were to be married on June 6, 1970.
Tradgedy struck at 9 p.m. on a clear evening - May 15th - when Briere was involved in a single-car crash with two friends.
Briere was ejected from his 1970 Orange Mercury Cougar along Higway 117 in Val-d'or, Quebec - 70 miles from his hometown of Malartic. The Pens' rookie suffered major head trauma. Briere was flown 300 miles by government plane to Notre Dame Hospital in Montreal where Dr. Claude Bertrand, a leading Canadian neuro-surgeon, performed the first of four brain surgeries and delivered a grim prognosis: "Briere has a 50-50 chance to live," Bertrand said.
"Mike Is With Us..."
While Briere was in Montreal's Notre Dame Hospital, the Penguins started pre-season conditioning near Brantford, Ontario. Then-trainer Ken Carson added Briere's name to the back of a jersey (RIGHT). The jersey, along with Briere's equipment bag, traveled with the team for the 1970-71 season.
"Mike is with us," Carson would remind the team during difficult times.
Ten months later Briere was transfered to Montreal's Marie-Clarac Rehabilitation Hospital on March 27, 1971. The Pens finished the regular season at home on April 4 - a 1-1 tie with St. Louis - and missed the playoffs.
Nine days later, after spending the last 11 months in a coma, Briere died at 4:20 p.m. on April 13, 1971.
The news of Briere's death was first delivered to Carson.
"The family couldn't connect with anyone in Pittsburgh," Carson explained. "They called me in the early morning and I called Jack Riley."
Who was the only other Pens player to wear #21?
Carson also notified Bill and Ramona Hodill of Pittsburgh. The Hodills were asked by Riley to be Briere's host family when he lived in Pittsburgh. The Hodill's Fox Chapel home was a real comfort for the 19-year-old, English-challenged Briere.
"Jack thought he'd be less lonesome in a home with a family than living in an apartment," Bill Hodill told the Pittsburgh Press in May 1970.
"It was heartbreaking. No one even thought about if he'd ever play again, we only wanted him to survive," said Carson, now the Director of Florida Operations with Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin.
Six members of the Penguins, including Riley, Carson and Coach Red Kelly, attended the funeral outside Montreal. A memorial service was held in St. Paul's Cathedral in Pittsburgh in which most of the team officials and some players attended.
Briere's number was not retired immediately by the team, but no one ever wore it again.
"There was no ceremony or recognition," Carson said.
"A framed jersey hung in the Igloo Club (inside the Civic Arena) with his photo," said Carson. "That was the only visible sign the number was retired."
Carson, who was with the team for another five years, said that "no one ever asked to wear that number. If they had," Carson explained, "I would have told them Mike's story."
A framed jersey and photograph of Briere hung inside the Civic Arena's Igloo Club.
Number 21 to the Rafters
Briere and Mario Lemieux are the only two players in Penguins' history to have their numbers retired. Briere's number was officially retired on January 5, 2001; just nine days after Lemieux returned to once again wear his number 66.