In Pittsburgh, and across hockey, he needs only his first name. Mario.
It’s understood that means Mario Lemieux, Hall of Fame center, arguably the most skilled player in NHL history.
He arrived in Western Pennsylvania in late summer 1984, a towering, jeans-loving teen from suburban Montreal who spoke halting English and joined a Penguins hockey team that for all its existence had played in the shadow of the Steelers and the Pirates and Pitt football. Not to mention the dying steel mills and any event that featured fireworks.
He never left. Lemieux, who turns 53 Oct. 5, had and still has, an impact on Pittsburgh that is so enormous it is difficult to quantify.
On the ice and off, he saved the franchise more than once. Not only saved it from being relocated to Hamilton or Kansas City or who knows where, but also guided it to the top echelon of the NHL.
He won scoring championships and the hearts of locals, and he led the Penguins to their first two Stanley Cups. Then, with the financial assistance of partner Ron Burkle, Lemieux bought the Penguins out of bankruptcy and as co-owner gave the club the resources to win three more Cups (so far).
He and his wife, Nathalie, childhood sweethearts, raised four children in Pittsburgh. They are active through the Mario Lemieux Foundation in fundraising for cancer research and the Austin’s Playroom projects.
Lemieux doesn’t do interviews anymore. Off the ice, being a public figure and speaking into microphones was never a comfortable endeavor for him, although he was gracious with his time when those things were required.
That’s OK. His ever-growing legacy speaks volumes.
In just 915 games, Lemieux scored 1723 points and is the eight all-time leader scorer. 690 goals.
Imagine if Lemieux had not retired for three and a half seasons. 350 more points? Imagine if he didn’t miss over 500 games mostly between 1989-90 and 1994-95 with back surgery, Hodgkin’s disease, and various other ailments. Perhaps add another 800 points? Had Lemieux been healthy, he may well have challenged Wayne Gretzky as the all-time leading scorer.
Mario trails only Gretzky in points per game average, 1.92 to 1.88.
Lemieux also had the second-longest points streak in NHL history, 46 games. He was five shy of tying Gretzky’s record; a feat he accomplished without being able to bend over to tie his own skates. His streak ended on Feb. 14, 1990. Lemieux missed the next 12 months with a herniated disc; except for the final game of the of 1989-90 season, which the Penguins needed to win to make the playoffs. A hobbled Lemieux still scored two points (1g, 1a) but the Penguins lost to Buffalo when Uwe Krupp’s long slapshot eluded goalie Tom Barrasso in overtime.
Lemieux’s hardware collection includes six Art Ross trophies. Lemieux watched the scoring categories closely. He won three Hart trophies, two Conn Smythe trophies and two Stanley Cups as a player…and three more as an owner.
This week, PHN has featured the men who built the Penguins. Eddie Johnston wisely turned down remarkably rich trade offers to draft Lemieux (Read Part One). Second all-time NHL leading scorer Jaromir Jagr rigged the 1990 NHL Draft to play with Mario and the Penguins (Read Part Two). And General Manager Craig Patrick surrounded Lemieux with one of the greatest teams of all-time (Read Part Three).
The common thread is they built on the rock which is Mario.
Without Mario, there would have been no marches down Grant Street to Point State Park. According to Johnston, without Mario, hockey in Pittsburgh would have ceased in the mid-1980’s. Hockey would have ceased in 1998 without Mario, and it would have moved in 2007 if not for Lemieux’s legendary determination which eventually worked out a deal for a new arena.
When Mario arrived in 1984, the last vestiges of the Steelers dynasty were limping away, and Pirates heroes were limping into court on serious drug charges. The city witnessed the final collapse of the steel industry and birth of a new Pittsburgh with jobs in healthcare, education, and finance.
Pittsburgh wasn’t the most hockey cultured place. As an eight-year-old enthralled with the new extraordinary talent, I vividly remember arguing with my friend that his name was pronounced “Lem-you” not “Lem-yooks.” My friend insisted the “X” was pronounced. I had no idea if I was right but I argued anyway. I still look back and laugh at how naive we all were to this amazing world of hockey.
Mario opened that world to an entire city.
Before long, we were arguing if Calgary could beat Edmonton and how much we hated the Flyers. Some things never change, eh? The Civic Arena crowds often stood whenever Mario took his next shift. We waited with baited breath for his next great moment. In 1988-89, his 199 points provided countless moments.
I was there on December 31, 1988, when Lemieux scored five goals, five ways. I was there in 1989 when Mario hung five on the Flyers in Game 5, and Ron Hextall chased a windmilling Robby Brown. Every year, my father took us to Long John Silvers jersey night. No. 66 was always on the back of those promotional giveaways. The plastic hockey stick I used to battle my younger brother in the dining room had Lemieux’s name written in pen (I made him put Dan Quinn on his stick, you know, so we didn’t both have Lemieux sticks). The backhand through the five-hole became my favorite move.
Those are my fondest memories.
Mario did more than build the Penguins. He captured imaginations, built a Penguins and a hockey fanbase in Pittsburgh, is building a city corridor, and a legacy which has affected and will affect millions. He even beat cancer.
From extraordinary circumstances arise extraordinary opportunity. Most would have walked away from the second act; owning a team with an old arena. Fortunately, Pittsburgh had an extraordinary talent willing to meet the extraordinary moment. And we’re all better for it.
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The Pittsburgh Penguins are widely considered one of the premier franchises in the NHL — a club that has won the Stanley Cup five times, is considered a perennial contender, spends to the salary cap ceiling, boasts stellar TV ratings, sells out all its home games and draws an impressive number of fans on the road, and has had a parade of Hall of Fame and star players. It wasn’t always that way. There were humble beginnings as an expansion franchise more than 50 years ago under the direction of original general manager Jack Riley, who was sharp but realistic and remained in the team “family” into his 90s. Through the years, several key individuals have been responsible for the Penguins’ rise. This is a look at some of those individuals.
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