On Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2006, Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux retired from the game of hockey for the second time. The owner, captain and best Pittsburgh Penguin ever had decided that it was time to hang up the magical skates forever and the game of hockey lost a superstar on the ice.
In honour of his great accomplishments over a record-breaking career, we have pulled this gem from the THW Archives, written by former team member Alex Mai and originally published Dec. 5, 2013.
Today, I would like to share with you a story.
This is the story of ultimate triumph.
This is the story of heartbreaking tragedy.
This is the story of the man, the legend, Mario Lemieux, arguably the greatest hockey player to ever play the game.
In the Beginning
Lemieux began his career with the Laval Voisins of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. At the young age of 15, Lemieux boldly proclaimed that he would be the one to break league records. In his last game of junior hockey, Lemieux needed 3 goals to beat Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur’s record of 130 goals in a season, no easy feat. Lemieux ended up exceeding all expectations, scoring 6 goals and 6 assists in a ridiculous 16-4 victory. It should come as no surprise that the entire National Hockey League (NHL) was highly interested in the young Quebecer’s services. Even though every team wanted to acquire the prodigy, only one would be able to draft Lemieux.
In 1983, the Pittsburgh Penguins were the laughingstock of the NHL as a result of their league-worst record. The team, like many other expansion franchises, struggled to compete with more established organizations such as the Montreal Canadiens. On the ice, the Penguins were simply outmatched by superior opposition and rarely won games. Off the ice, the team’s losing ways caused a massive disconnect between the team and its fans. Pittsburgh natives were unwilling to pay to see their team lose time and time again. By 1984, the Penguins had gone bankrupt, and it seemed like the team was destined for relocation.
Fortunately, hockey is a cyclical business, with many ups and downs.
As their team continued to slide in the 1984 NHL season, Pittsburgh general manager (GM) Eddie Johnston made a bold decision that few expected. The team had absolutely no chance of making the playoffs, so Johnston made an executive call that appalled the rest of the NHL; the Pittsburgh Penguins would lose on purpose to acquire the first overall draft pick the next year. The move upset many teams around the league, but the NHL did nothing to stop the Penguins. By the end of 1984, Pittsburgh was once again dead last in the NHL.
Penguins Hit Rock Bottom and the Jackpot
By hitting rock bottom, the Penguins were able to acquire the services of Lemieux, who immediately made an impact for the Penguins, scoring his first goal in his first game, on his first shift, on his first shot. The man he beat on the play was none other than Hall-of-Famer Ray Bourque, considered by many to be one of the greatest defensemen ever.
The next few years saw Lemieux establish himself as a true superstar. Finally, the Penguins had a star player that they could market around. In his first season, Lemieux won Rookie of the Years Honors on the strength of a spectacular 100 point season. By 1988, Lemieux won his first NHL scoring title by ending the seven-year reign of a man you may have heard of by the name of Wayne Gretzky.
Lemieux was quickly becoming one of the elite players in the NHL, with many calling him “The Next Gretzky”. By 1990, Lemieux had already won multiple individual honors and trophies, but that individual success did not translate into team victories, and Pittsburgh struggled to make the playoffs.
After all, no matter how great a player is, one man cannot win a championship.
In 1990, the Penguins drafted a young Czech player as the Iron Curtain was falling. His name was Jaromir Jagr. Soon, like Lemieux, Jagr would become a superstar. Lemieux and Jagr formed one of the most dynamic duos in the NHL, and the two friends seemed destined for greatness. Many called their partnership destiny; “JAROMIR” happened to be an anagram for “Mario Jr.”
On the strength of these two premier players, the Penguins went all-in, trading away the majority of its future assets and income to acquire NHL All-Stars Ron Francis, Bryan Trottier, Larry Murphy, Paul Coffey and Tom Barrasso. To elaborate on each of these players’ careers would take hours, but needless to say, they were the best at what they did. It should come as no surprise that by this time, Pittsburgh was considered the biggest powerhouse in the hockey world. On the strength of these players, led by Lemieux and Jagr, Pittsburgh won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992. It was the golden age of hockey in Pennsylvania.
Unfortunately, hockey is a cyclical business, and nothing lasts forever.
Throughout the championship years, Lemieux’s health began to decline over time. He suffered several back problems due to a herniated disc, and the pain Mario suffered often debilitated his ability to do simple everyday tasks. Lemieux underwent major back surgery in order to correct the problem.
Lady Luck, however, was not on Lemieux’s side.
On January 12, 1993, Lemieux revealed that he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer found in white blood cells. He immediately underwent aggressive radioactive therapy, and miraculously, was back before the end of the season. Somehow, despite his time missed due to back and cancer problems, Lemieux still led the NHL in scoring that year, with an incredible 160 points in 60 games. By 1997, Lemieux had already undergone multiple back surgeries, and the years of chemotherapy had begun to take its toll. As a result, Lemieux announced his retirement as a player that year. He was immediately inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, skipping the mandatory 3-year waiting period.
Despite losing Mario, the Penguins still had a superstar in Jaromir Jagr, and for a while, it seemed as though everything would be alright. Sadly, nothing could be farther from the truth. Pittsburgh spent recklessly during the championship years, and it was time to pay the piper. At the time of Lemieux’s retirement, the Penguins owed various creditors 90 million dollars. Their largest creditor was Lemieux, who was owed over 30 million dollars.
Lemieux’s heart, however, never left Pittsburgh. In an effort to save the team from itself, he proposed a plan that was simply unheard of – Lemieux offered to forfeit his salary in order to acquire equity in the team itself. As the new majority owner, CEO, President and Chairman of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Lemieux brought instant credibility back to the franchise by personally guaranteeing that every one of the Penguins’ debts would be repaid in time.
Despite all this, the team had still traded away the majority of its players in order to save money, and was falling to shambles on the ice.
Fortunately, hockey is a cyclical business, and full of the unexpected.
In 2000, Lemieux stunned the hockey world by announcing that he would be coming out of retirement. It was the first time in the history of hockey that a player on the ice was also an owner of the team. He found instant success with his old friend Jagr, now the Penguins captain, with a career that rivalled Lemieux’s. Together, the two superstars played several more successful seasons together. Unfortunately, Lemieux’s biological clock was ticking. He was no longer a spring chicken, and began to suffer from multiple hip issues. On top of this, the Penguins eventually were forced to trade Jagr due to his massive contract.
By the end of 2006, Lemieux announced his second and final retirement from hockey.
No one, however, likes a sad ending. Fortunately, this story ends on a high note.
In 2006, Pittsburgh won the draft lottery and was able to draft a player dubbed “the Next Lemieux”. Lemieux was able to play his last season with this player, teaching him the ropes and showing him what it meant to be truly great.
That player’s name was Sidney Crosby.
With Lemieux taking the reins in the front office, Crosby led the Penguins to their third and most recent Stanley Cup in 2009, continuing Lemieux’s legacy of greatness.
Hockey is a cyclical business. The Pittsburgh Penguins were lucky enough to draft some of the greatest players in NHL history, but also endured enough adversity to last a lifetime.
Outside the brand new Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania stands a bronze statue of Mario Lemieux. Its name is “Le Manifique”, and its task is to remind Penguins fans everywhere of the accomplishments of the greatest athlete to ever play in Pittsburgh.
With Crosby at its forefront, the Penguins now look to the future, anxiously waiting for their next championship.
It would seem that this story has only just begun.