FTHN Legends: Mario Lemieux

Mario Lemieux is the face of the Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)

Mario Lemieux is the face of the Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL)

Legend is only one word that describes NHL Superstar Mario Lemieux. Player, MVP, Stanley Cup Champion, Cancer Survivor, Retired, Savior, Philanthropist and Owner are a few more.  To say Lemieux has done it all in the world of hockey would be an understatement.  Needless to say these words all tell a story of a part of an amazing journey from Montreal, Quebec, Canada to Pittsburgh, PA. 

In The Beginning

Mario Lemieux was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada on October5, 1965. From the beginning, he was always looked at as a special player.  When he was drafted at the age of 15 to play for the Laval Voisins of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League he simply excelled.

In the 1983-84 season, he broke the QMJHL record for points.  Lemieux scored an incredible mind blowing 282 points (133 goals with 149 assists) in just 70 games.  That was just a width of a puck more than 4 points a game!!  He also set the league record for most goals in a season, breaking the former record of fellow Hall of Famer Guy LaFleur (130 goals).  He finished his Junior playing career with an astounding 562 points in just 3 seasons (247 goals and 315 assists).

He was also a player of principal. In a previous tournament at the 1983 World Junior Tournament, Lemieux had felt that Coach Dave King had not treated him fairly.  So when the opportunity came up again in 1984, Lemieux declined to play for King.  He was political about it, citing that he didn’t want to break up his Junior season.

His principals were also on display at the 1984 NHL draft. When Lemieux and his agent could not agree to terms of a contract with the Penguins and GM Eddie Johnston, Lemieux refused to shake Johnston’s hand or put on the Penguins jersey when he was announced as the Number 1 pick of the NHL Draft.  Eventually, though, Lemieux was true to his word and signed with the team that drafted him as he agreed to his first NHL contract to wear the black & gold of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Mr. Penguin

Mario Lemieux on the cover of SI

Mario Lemieux on the cover of SI

Upon signing in Pittsburgh, Lemieux joined a team that was in disarray and had fallen on very hard times. Rumors of the franchise moving were not uncommon.  There had been talk at the end of the previous season that the Penguins had allegedly “tanked” games to ensure they would get the 1st pick of the draft and grab Lemieux.  After an investigation, the Penguins were cleared of any wrongdoing.

That however, did not put any less pressure on Lemieux to succeed and succeed he did.  On his very first shift in the NHL, Lemieux stole the puck from Raymond Bourque of the Bruins and scored against Pete Peeters on his first shot in the NHL   He would go on to score 100 points that season en-route to the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year.

Following up his rookie campaign, Lemieux would register 147 points, finishing behind Wayne Gretzky and his 215 points, and was named the Lester B. Pearson Award winner as voted on by his peers as the best player in the league. The Canada Cup beckoned and Mario would light things up there as well, with his tournament clinching goal in the last 2 minutes against the powerhouse Soviet Union.

The Stanley Cup Years

Lemieux would go on a tear in following seasons and the play of his Penguins teammates would also. Buoyed by Lemieux’s play, teammates such as Kevin Stevens, John Cullen and Rob Brown to name a few, experienced career years as the Penguins slowly became a force in the NHL.  Throw in a little known draft pick – Jaromir Jagr – and the Penguins were set to take off.

Lemieux and Jagr 1992 photoshoot (The Hockey News)

Lemieux and Jagr 1992 photoshoot (The Hockey News)

 

Lemieux was able to end Gretzky’s stranglehold on the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer and the Penguins were poised to make some serious noise in the playoffs.  While Lemieux, Stevens & Jagr were a formidable front 3, the Penguins brass knew they needed more in order to get through each round of the playoffs and reach the Final.

 

 

Taking advantage of the perceived talent of some others, they shipped Jeff Parker, John Cullen and Zarley Zalapski to the Whalers in exchange for Ron Francis, Grant Jennings and Ulf Samuelsson.  The addition of Francis no longer allowed teams to solely focus on Lemieux.  Samuelsson added the much needed grit to deal with the physicality that comes with each round of the playoffs. While Jennings added depth to a stacked Penguin team.

Along with additions like Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy, the Penguins – led by Super Mario – were able to capture back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships.  Lemieux had done what many had thought impossible.  He had taken a wayward downtrodden franchise and brought them to the pinnacle of success in the NHL.  They were two-time Stanley Cup Champions

Battle With Cancer

Earlier in his career, Lemieux had dealt with some injuries. A broken hand during the playoffs  after a slash from the Rangers Adam Graves, chronic back issues, muscle pulls and the usual maladies that every NHL suffers from throughout a long season.  The 1992-93 season was no different.  Lemieux was off to a record breaking start.  The pace he had set was one that would topple Gretzky’s single season point record.  That all came crashing down to earth on  January 12, 1993 when he announced that he had contracted Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

He would immediately be undergoing aggressive radiation treatments.  The problem with this type of therapy is that it zaps the energy right out from under you.  Having this kind of therapy put not only this season in doubt but Lemieux’s career as well.  While he was out, the Penguins went into a tailspin.  That all changed though when he returned. The Penguins – possibly inspired by Lemieux’s courageous comeback – won 17 straight games (an NHL record) and finished first overall for the first time in franchise history.  Lemieux himself would win his fourth overall scoring title with an incredible 160 points in only 60 games, easily outdistancing runner-up Pat Lafontaine of the Buffalo Sabres by 12 points.

The Last Ride

That summer, Lemieux would undergo back surgery for the second time in his career. The procedure cost him the start of the season. After the 1993-94 season, Mario announced that he would be taking some time off due to the effects of the radiation treatment.  He would return for the 1995-96 season and would reach a personal milestone when he recorded his 500th career goal and winning his third Hart Trophy along with his 5th Art Ross Trophy.

Mario Lemieux HOF

Mario Lemieux HOF

 

In 1996-97, Lemieux reached several other milestones. He recorded his 600th goal and he won his 6th Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer.  After the Penguins bowed out of the playoffs at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers, Lemieux called it a career.   On November 17, 1997, for only the 9th time in league history, the mandatory 3 year waiting period was rescinded and Lemieux was enshrined into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

 

 

The Return of the Player and Owner

Without Lemieux the Penguins again faced financial uncertainty. While still having a modicum of success on the ice, off the ice – they were a mess.  During the Lemieux years, the Penguins owners – Howard Baldwin and Morris Belzberg – spent lavishly on players with a win at all costs mentality.  This eventually came home to roost when it was learned that they owed more than $90 million.  Players were asked to defer salaries.  Trades were made with the bottom line in mind and not improving the team.

In November 1998, they hit rock bottom and were forced to declare bankruptcy. Rumors were flying that they would either be disbanded or moved out of Pittsburgh.  Then the unimaginable happened.  Lemieux stepped up with a unique offer to buy the team.

Ironically, when the players had been asked to defer salaries so they team would pay them parts of their salary at a later date, Lemieux was the one who had deferred the most.  He actually was one of the creditors that the Penguins owed the most money to.  He converted what was deferred into equity in the team making him the majority owner (talk about a POWERPLAY!!)  and the banks agreed as did the NHL Board of Governors.  He had become President, Chairman and CEO of the Penguins!  For the second time in his career, Lemieux had saved the Penguins.

Rumors were flying in 2000 that Mario was contemplating a return to the ice. This would present a unique situation in that he would be both player and owner. On December 27, 2000, that became a reality when Lemieux laced up the skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs and resumed his career.

 

Lemieux would go on to play several more season before finally retiring on January 24, 2006 simply because he wasn’t and couldn’t compete at the level he was accustomed to. At age 40, he no longer could keep up with the speed of the game – something he had long been a proponent of.

In June 2009, Lemieux would win his 3rd Stanley Cup as a member of the Penguins organization when the Sydney Crosby led Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings in a rematch from the previous season.

Pittsburgh Ice

On October 7, 2010 Lemieux helped usher in a new era in Penguins history with the opening of the Consol Energy Center. It was a move that had saved the franchise yet again.  Simply, the Penguins could not compete financially in the old decrepit Igloo and a new modernized building was sorely needed.  In a symbolic move, Lemieux poured a vial of ice water that had come from The Igloo at center ice faceoff during the opening ceremonies.  The Flyers would spoil the party though by defeating the Pens 3-2.

 

Conclusion

Say what you want about Mario Lemieux, from crybaby to champion, but it’s safe to say though, that there has never been an athlete quite like him. He has saved a franchise not once, not twice but three times and has become as synonymous with Pittsburgh as any athlete has become to the community they played in.  While Gretzky is “The Great One” and Gordie Howe is “Mr. Hockey”, Number 66 is truly “Super Mario.”

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