To the best of their recollection, Brooks Orpik and Mark Recchi believe it was general manager Craig Patrick who came into the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room that day and delivered the news about Mario Lemieux.
“I think everyone was kind of curious like maybe had an inkling that something was going on, but not to that extent,” Orpik recalled.
This was not Lemieux – Hall of Famer, hockey royalty, city of Pittsburgh icon – taking more time off.
This was the end of a most notable era.
It was Jan. 24, 2006, 15 years ago Sunday. The news was that Lemieux was retiring as a player, for the second and last time. He was 40.
He had taken a leave from playing weeks earlier because of atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat, but he had been on medication and was still practicing with the club in the hope of returning.
Now, with side effects of the meds bothering him and a surgical option sounding viable, he was walking away.
“If I could still play this game I would be on the ice,” Lemieux said at a press conference that day that resonated throughout the sports world. “This is it, and it hurts.”
Yes, it did.
“It was tough,” recalled Recchi, who won a Stanley Cup, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first, with Lemieux in 1991 and is longtime friends with him. “You wanted him to keep playing, but there comes a time when he’s got to figure out what’s best for him and his family. But it definitely was hard.”
Recchi was just shy of his 38th birthday. Orpik was 25, in just his second full NHL season. Also on the team then were veterans brought in after the 2004-05 lockout such as John LeClair and Sergei Gonchar. And youngsters such as Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Malone.
And one particularly bright-eyed, articulate rookie who had a different type of insight into Lemieux’s plight.
“We both knew it was coming,” 18-year-old Sidney Crosby told TSN that day. “It’s never an easy thing.”
Crosby, the first overall pick in the 2005 NHL draft, would go on to accomplish a thing or 20 in the subsequent 15 years and is still playing his heart out for the Penguins.
Back then, even with a teammate such as Lemieux, Crosby was seen as the future of hockey and was becoming the face of the NHL. Still, he was a teenager new to the top hockey league.
What’s more, Crosby was living with the Lemieux family, an arrangement that would continue for several seasons.
“He has been great with me,” Crosby said back then. “He has taught me a lot. I’ve been fortunate to have that.
“I think he’s a guy that has so much passion for the game. It makes you want to be around him. It’s fortunate for him that he’s leaving on his own terms.”
Intimidation To Inspiration
Orpik remembers the intimidation factor being a young player around Lemieux, who is 6 feet 4 but can seem even bigger. And that’s before you consider his feats.
Mario Lemieux, as skilled as they come with the puck, remains eighth all-time in NHL scoring with 1,723 points despite playing in fewer than 1,000 games because of ailments such as hip and back problems and even cancer.
He retired at the end of the 1996-97 season before coming back to great fanfare on Dec. 27, 2000. That made him an odd bird in sports – a player/owner. Lemieux and business partner Ron Burkle bought the Penguins out of bankruptcy in 1999.
“I don’t want to say I’m regretful, but I wish I (hadn’t been) as shy around him as I was,” Orpik recalled. “I mean, growing up, there’s probably 1A, 1B (Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky), the best players of all time. Kind of a coin flip. Depends on who you ask. That’s one of the guys you grew up watching, and all of a sudden you’re playing with him. And he owns the team, so when you get your paycheck he’s signing your paycheck. The last thing you want to do is aggravate this guy or piss this guy off.”
Orpik — who played in 1,035 NHL games before retiring in 2019 and now is a part-time assistant with Boston College and development coach with the Washington Capitals – is grateful for the time he got to have Lemieux as a teammate.
Orpik, 40, who finished his career with Washington, is believed to be one of just two players who were teammates with Lemieux, Crosby, and Alex Ovechkin. Rico Fata is the other.
He tells of catching himself watching No. 66 and being awestruck before snapping out of it and remembering he needed to mind his game. And this excruciating introduction:
“I remember my very first practice with him,” Orpik said. “We were doing a basic drill. You’re always kind of looking to see who you’re going to get lined up with. And sure enough, he started coming toward me and I had to pass him the puck. It was probably as easy a pass as you can make in hockey, and I missed him by probably 10 feet, which is hard to do because he’s got a really long reach. I remember he kind of looked at me like, what the heck was that? It was almost like one of those things where you just had to get it out of the way. I’m sure I wasn’t the first or last person that did the same thing.”
Lemieux never stopped impressing Orpik, even as an older guy in his second go-round in the NHL.
“He was definitely not the same,” Orpik said of Lemieux then vs. the younger player Orpik watched growing up. “But I remember the first training camp, just doing conditioning skating with him, and he was so far ahead of everybody else, and it literally looking like he wasn’t trying.
“Some of the stuff he used to do, even at that age… I remember he used to straddle the goal line, so he was (at) these impossible angles, and he would just take one-timers that would never miss the net, where most guys who would do that you’re lucky if you get one or two out of 10. The ease with which he would do things was probably the most remarkable thing.”
It was in hindsight, and in learning more about Lemieux when he transitioned from player/owner to just owner, that Orpik realized he had no reason to be intimidated.
“He’s a pretty quiet guy, keeps to himself, so I think as a younger guy it’s tough to get a read on him,” he said. “He just has a presence about him. He can be very intimidating. But then when you get to know him, that’s the last way he wants to be viewed. Looking back on it, he probably just wanted to be treated like another teammate. But you don’t have that knowledge as a younger guy.”
Mario Lemieux, ‘Great Guy, Great Teammate’
Where Orpik sometimes froze with fear, Recchi enjoyed the heck out of being Lemieux’s teammate again. It was comfortable and motivating all at once.
“It’s always special to play with arguably the best, at least one of the best, to ever play in the world,” Recchi said. “And he’s a great guy, a great teammate.”
Recchi, 52 and Lemieux’s contemporary and fellow Hall of Famer, played three different stints with the Penguins and more recently was an assistant coach. He is now an assistant with New Jersey but still lives in Pittsburgh.
Back then, coming out of that full-season lockout, there were great expectations for the 2005-06 season. And while it launched what no doubt is a Hall of Fame career for Crosby, it ended with a thud. The Penguins finished second-to-last in the league, and with Lemieux’s skates hung up for good.
“I know he was excited,” Recchi said of Lemieux’s outlook going into that season. “We skated together during the summer getting ready for that season. We were all very excited about it, to get things going again for the franchise. It ended up being a tough year, but you’re trying to figure out how to build it, get it back to a championship team.”
Lemieux got there eventually, albeit as an owner. The Penguins have made the playoffs every season since, and Lemieux, who won Cups in 1991 and ’92 as player, oversaw teams that won again in 2009, ’16 and ’17.
The ownership side of things was never an issue during his comeback that ended 15 years ago.
“When you walked into the dressing room, you’d never know it,” Recchi said. “He was a teammate. That was the great thing about it. He was our friend and teammate. I don’t think anybody thought anything about it because of the way he handles himself.”
Quiet But Effective
Mario Lemieux was never enamored of being in the spotlight off the ice. He complied out of obligation – and there certainly were demands on his time as a player who won six NHL scoring titles, three MVP awards, two Conn Smythe trophies, a Calder Trophy, a Masterton Trophy, and an Olympic gold medal.
As an owner, he’s even more quiet publicly. He has unofficially retired from things such as interviews, although he is often around the locker room after games at PPG Paints Arena, at least when there isn’t a pandemic.
Yet he has given the Penguins the green light to spend to the salary cap, which has helped keep them competitive. His name, along with UPMC, is on the team’s newer practice facility in Cranberry.
In terms of philanthropy, the Mario Lemieux Foundation has raised more than $25 million for charity such as cancer research.
When Lemieux does speak up, it resonates. Orpik found that out the morning of June 12, 2009, when he and his teammates woke up to the now-famous text from their team owner offering encouragement for their winner-take-all Game 7 that night in Detroit in the Stanley Cup final.
It read: “This is a chance of a lifetime to realize your childhood dream to win a Stanley Cup. Play without fear and you will be successful!! See you at center ice. Mario”
“I remember getting it and reading it — it kind of gave you chills,” Orpik said. “I don’t know how you possibly go out there and lose that game. The sense of disappointment you would have if you didn’t get it done. That was probably one of the coolest interactions with him.”
Recchi said Lemieux, while never lording over anyone because of his status as an owner during that final run as a player, always was good to his teammates.
“He did so many great things,” Recchi said. “Took care of his teammates. He did that with Sid as well. So many special things.”
That includes keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh.
Lemieux and Burkle were exploring selling the team at the time Lemieux retired as a player. That didn’t work out, but things on the ice did before too long, and the itch to sell apparently faded away.
“This is his home,” Recchi said of Lemieux’s relationship with Pittsburgh. “This is his kids’ home. This is really where he grew up, became a man. He’s never forgotten that. He’s that type of person. He’s a special person when it comes to that. Pittsburgh’s his home. This franchise means everything to him. He would do whatever it takes to keep the team here.”
Except continue to play. That’s something Lemieux can’t do anymore, and it became official 15 years ago.
*For more, we also recommend Chrys Goyens’ book on Mario, the comeback, and retirement.