There’s More to Mario Lemieux’s Statement Than You Think

Mario Lemieux coaching his son’s youth hockey team in October (Credit:

Ask anyone who remembers Mario Lemieux’s playing career and they’ll tell you he was a player who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.  They’ll even point to a number of well-documented examples when ‘Super Mario’ seemed to be begging for special treatment.

Like in 1992 when he called the NHL a “garage league” because of the baffling rules (or lack thereof) that benefited the marginal hockey player.

Or the time he lost his mind and confronted referee Kerry Fraser after he was mauled in a 1994 game against Tampa Bay.

But for the most part, Lemieux quietly accepted the constant physical abuse that accompanied his role as a superstar in that era.  He absorbed the slashes and the punches and cheap shots that took a serious toll on his mind and his body over time.

Bobby Orr once told CBC that Lemieux was “the most talented player I’ve ever seen. If it were not for health problems, God only knows what his numbers would have been.”

Lemieux’s transition into an ownership role has been relatively quiet as well after he won city and state support for a new arena that opened this fall.  A wave from the owner’s box or a timely text message is about all fans get anymore from the man Orr spoke so highly of.

This weekend that changed.

Brawls erupted in a Friday night game between his Penguins and the New York Islanders that left the entire hockey world stunned.  Pittsburgh’s Eric Godard received an automatic 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to join in a fight, Matt Martin of the Islanders was suspended four games for punching Max Talbot from behind, and Trevor Gillies was given a nine-game suspension for a vicious elbow and attack on defenseless Penguins prospect Eric Tangradi.

Tangradi remains out of the lineup with his second concussion in less than a year and the Islanders organization was fined $100,000 for a “failure to control their players.”

When details of the suspensions and fines were finally released late Saturday night, Mario decided he had seen enough.

The following afternoon he released a seething response to the league laced with words like travesty, sideshow, and embarrassing:

“Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be. But what happened Friday night on Long Island wasn’t hockey. It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that.

“The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed.

“We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action.

“If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to re-think whether I want to be a part of it.”

What happened on Friday night was a complete embarrassment, but it wasn’t rock bottom for the NHL.  Dozens of disgusting incidents have happened in the past and with the snails-pace of change in today’s NHL it’s certain to happen again.

So what prompted Lemieux to snap?

ESPN’s Scott Burnside took the opportunity to attack Lemieux’s character in a column calling him out as a ‘petulant child stomping his feet’.

Others like Joe Yerdon at ProHockeyTalk on NBC offered a more reasoned critique wondering if Lemieux’s method of delivery was selfish.

Penguins General Manager Ray Shero told Kevin Allen at the USA TODAY that the statement even caught him off guard.

“[Mario] just saw something that disturbed him in the game and he spoke out about it,” Shero said. “It’s out of character. So when he does say something, you know how strongly he feels about it.”

To pinpoint the origins of Lemieux’s uncharacteristic reaction, it’s worth taking a look at who he’s become in the five years since he walked away from the game for the final time.

Mario the Coach

Lemieux with his team (Credit: Chris Gerardi)

The challenge for any supremely-talented athlete is finding an avenue to satisfy the competitive juices long after a playing career ends.

Wayne Gretzky dabbled in coaching at the NHL level for a few years after retirement, but the ‘Great One’ managed just a 143-161-24 record behind the bench of the Phoenix Coyotes before getting hung out to dry by the team in bankruptcy court.

Mario possesses a similar interest in sharing his hockey knowledge with others, but prefers to mentor the younger generation.

For the past few years Lemieux has coached his son Austin’s traveling team which recently competed in the Tier 1 ’96 Super Series amateur hockey tournament at Pittsburgh’s CONSOL Energy Center:

“My son, he is the reason I got involved,” Lemieux said. “It’s been a joy to be around him and teach him the stuff that I know, and to the other kids as well. When he started playing I wanted to be involved in his hockey career. It’s a lot of fun for both of us.”

Lemieux went on to explain that helping Austin and his teammates develop and improve is a rewarding role that most hockey parents don’t get the opportunity to experience.

He said that winning and losing isn’t important to him as a coach, as long as the kids learn to play the game the right way and always put in a solid effort.

Mario the Landlord

Away from the rink, Mario serves as a father-figure and a mentor to another hockey-obsessed ‘kid’.

Lemieux has never forgotten the treatment he received from Tom and Nancy Matthews in the mid-80’s as a French-speaking teenager stepping foot in an unfamiliar city.  The Matthews treated him like a son and Mario has made it a point to pay-it-forward by opening the doors of his home to a number of young Penguins over the years.

Sidney Crosby moved into the Lemieux residence during his rookie year when the two played briefly as teammates and he was just beginning to adjust to the NHL, a new city, and a brighter media spotlight.

Crosby’s concussion frustration continues

Crosby took such a liking to Lemieux and his family that he still remains a member of the household six years after making his way to Pittsburgh.  Six years seems like a long time, but for Crosby the last six weeks have proved to be the most grueling.

Recovering from a concussion(s) he suffered in early January remains a frustrating day-to-day process for Crosby as he itches to return to the ice.  But this isn’t your normal hockey injury.

Crosby didn’t suffer a broken hand from a slash like the one Adam Graves laid on Lemieux in the 1992 playoffs.

This wasn’t even like the high-ankle sprain that kept Crosby off the ice for long unpredictable stretches of the 2007-08 season.

Lemieux witnessed one of his most-talented rivals, Pat Lafontaine, lose his career to concussions in the late 90’s and over the past six weeks has had to watch a 23-year-old kid battling the same brain injury in his own home:

“It’s brutal. You sit around and can’t do anything. Early on, I could barely watch TV. I’ve been able to do that more. It’s the things you take for granted and do everyday, like driving. That would set me off. That kind of stuff you take for granted. You realize going through something like this that being able to drive is a good step. I’ve been driving since it happened. Just getting through that without getting a headache or feeling a little off are the things you take for granted.”

-Sidney Crosby, Jan. 24

Lemieux and the Penguins never complained publicly about the hit Crosby sustained in the Winter Classic from Washington’s David Steckel, but you can sense the team’s quiet frustration as the future of the NHL’s greatest star remains an unknown.

Mario the Owner

Mario Lemieux the owner isn’t one to speak publicly either.  He spoke at a press conference in the 2009 Cup Finals and again after the Alumni Game last month, but he doesn’t want the Pittsburgh Penguins to be about him.

Shero adopts a similar approach as the team’s general manager.  He doesn’t publicly respond to daily incidents like his equal in Toronto, but admitted behind closed doors that he’s had conversations with Matt Cooke about playing the game with more respect for opponents.

Critics call Shero and Lemieux hypocrites for employing a serial cheap-shot artist like Cooke, who was recently suspended four games by the NHL for a hit from behind on Fedor Tyutin of Columbus.

But Matt Cooke’s recent actions were illegal under the rules of hockey.

Players like Cooke, Sean Avery, and Jarkko Ruutu aren’t paid millions of dollars for their sleek offensive abilities. Today’s NHL agitator is incentivized to carefully toe the blurry line between illegal and irritating. When they pester an opponent into a senseless penalty, we applaud them and say ‘that’s the type of player you want on your team’. When they take one step over that line, we crucify them mercilessly for their lack of respect.

What the Islanders did on Friday night was illegal under the rules of law.

A premeditated attack on another person without consent is deemed assault or battery in most jurisdictions.

When players step on the ice each night they assume the risk that injury could occur as a normal result of hits and the high speed the game is played at.  Guys like Max Talbot, Eric Tangradi, and Steve Moore (Todd Bertuzzi’s defenseless victim) don’t sign up to have someone attack them blindly and try to break their neck.

Lemieux watched on Friday night as a 31-year-old journeyman with one career goal elbowed the career and the life of his organization’s top prospect into uncertainty.

“If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to re-think whether I want to be a part of it.”

When Lemieux says he needs to re-think whether he wants to be a part of it, he isn’t just talking about his role as co-owner of an NHL team.

He’s speaking as an ambassador of the game, an influential youth hockey coach, a landlord of a concussed superstar, and a father to hockey-playing children.

Call him selfish; a hypocrite; a petulant child.

Lemieux has witnessed the dramatic impact headshots can have on the life of a person firsthand.  He doesn’t want to be the one telling CBC in fifteen years that Crosby was “the most talented player I’ve ever seen. If it were not for health problems, God only knows what his numbers would have been.”

He also doesn’t want to watch his own children suffer a similar fate at the hands of the game he loves.

Can you blame him?

20 thoughts on “There’s More to Mario Lemieux’s Statement Than You Think”

  1. The attempt to draw a distinction between the Penguins’ behavior and the Islanders’ is absurd. I have news for you. If Cooke had committed the barbaric acts he has to someone on the street, it would also be quite illegal under the law.

    Where was Mario’s concern for the game when his team signed Cooke as a free agent AFTER his brutal hit on Vinny LeCavalier that has reduced him to a shadow of his former self? If there was any real concern, Mario and Shero would have made it quite clear that if he ever did something like that in a Penguin uni, it would be the last game he ever played for the team. Instead, Shero has “talked” to Cooke after each criminal act he has committed. It has obviously done a lot of good.

    Where was Mario’s concern as his team established itself as the NHL leader in penalty minutes, major penalties, and fighting? Where was his concern when The Criminal Tool Cooke deliberately ran DiPietro not once, not twice, but three times in one game in October? Either Cooke, who was penalized each time, did this with Byelsma’s approval or Byelsma is a worthless coach who doesn’t know how to control his players. This criminal behavior by Cooke against a goalie with a well known injury history partly due to precisely that sort of attack, led to the incident that sparked the goalie fight of 2/2.

    Where was Mario’s concern when Byelsma unleashed his thugs on the Islanders on 2/2 resulting in, among other things, a concussion to Blake Comeau after a vicious hit by Talbot? This is par for the course for the Penguins. They have repeatedly made illegal or borderline illegal hits on Islanders and Comeau in particular. The 2/11 game sent a message. If you make illegal brutal hits on our guys, expect the same back.

    Mario was the captain of a Stanley Cup winning hockey team. As such he should know that you lead by example. If he is sincere, he will get rid of Cooke and begin to work with Shero and Byelsma to change the culture of his team. As they say, actions speak louder than words. If and when he does that, I will have respect for his words. He could even get together with Mike Bossy, another HHOFer whose career was shortened by injury, and launch a very public campaign and put pressure on Coli to get serious about discipline of dirty players. If he does that, I, for one, will applaud him. Unless and until he does, however, it’s all just hypocritical blather.

    • You’re right. There is no comparison. Sadly, you’re so much of a homer you think the Islanders are somehow justified or victims in this.

      • Yes, there is no comparison between a player who deliberately cheap shots other players trying to end their careers and other players, tired of the dirtiest team in the NHL constantly taking cheap shots at their team and injuring their players, giving that team back some of its own medicine.

        Any reasonable analysis of the 2/11will reveal that the Pens had almost as many penalties called against them as the Islanders did and, if anything, took more illegal or borderline illegal hits as the Islanders did. Video footage shows that immediately before Martin went after Talbot, Talbot made a completely unprovoked and vicious slash of Koskinen as he went past him. There was an elbow to the head of Hillen that caused him to miss several games. Grabner, Moulson, and Nielsen also were victims of cheapshots and were fortunate not to be injured.

        Sorry, but the homers in this discussion all wear black and gold. You can pretend all you like that this was all on the Islanders and you did nothing wrong. You can also pretend that, as player after player goes down at the hands of the Criminal Tool Cooke that the Penguins are behaving like a responsible team by “talking” to him (what a joke! Guess that showed him!). You can also try to pretend that a team sticking up for itself is somehow worse than another team that consistently cheapshots other teams and has the dirtiest player in the NHL (and I am an Islander fan who despises Avery, but there is NO comparison. If you don’t believe me, just ask LeCavalier, Savard, Ovi, and the rest of Cooke’s victims).

        You can make all these comments until the cows come home. It is really what Freud calls projection and the rest of the hockey world knows it. People like Grapes and Maven are saying what the rest are thinking. Clean up your own house or pipe down!!!

    • Geno,

      And maybe you should read up a bit on sports law before YOU fire anything off. The Bertuzzi case is well known as the exception that proves the rule. The NHL was very specific in its stance that the court was overreaching. One case does not make precedent–and this case in particular is not used as precedent in deciding the law. Certainly not in the United States, where it’s unlikely any court of jurisdiction would even consider caselaw from another country.

      Mike’s still wrong, you’re still wrong, Cooke’s still a dirty cheap-shotting thug, and Lemieux, even though he’s right, is still a hypocrite.

      • Dan, that’s absurd. Signing a waiver that states that you waive certain rights and will accept league oversight does not somehow magically mean that a sports league has the power, through the creation of its own self-serving bylaws, to overrule and bypass state, federal and local laws.

        That’s like claiming that if I started a Rollerball league and had everyone sign waivers that I could allow people to get killed on the field.

        Usually, authorities will allow sports leagues to handle cases that aren’t completely egregious, but that’s because they opt to, not because they have to. The writer is correct, what happened is considered assault, fits the legal definition, and could be acted upon by authorities if they felt the situation warranted it.

  2. Unfortunately Mike, in this case you literally don’t know what you’re talking about. Under the law, in almost any jurisdiction (and certainly in the federal jurisdiction under which NHL games are played), leagues have wide latitude to enforce (or not) their own bylaws as they see fit without interference from legal authorities–in fact, most require you to sign a waiver of your legal rights before you’re permitted to step on the ice/pitch/field/diamond. Any legal sanction against any player or team MUST be initiated by the league in question.

    In this case, the NHL has deemed the actions by the Islanders to be sanctionable under their bylaws. That’s the end of it, full stop.

    There literally is no legal recourse under the law for the Pens. Zip, zero, zilch, nada. So your entire argument–that the Islanders stepped across some legal line–holds about as much water as a shotglass with a hole in both ends.

    Sucks to be you, don’t it? ;)

    If the case is held entirely within the bounds of the NHL, it is perfectly legitimate to point out that Mario Lemieux was RIGHT, it is perfectly legitimate to point out that Mario Lemieux is a whiny hypocrite, and it is perfectly legitimate to call on Lemieux to put up or shut up. It’s ALL good.

    Matt Cooke has absolutely no place in this game. His multiple unpunished cheap shots leave no room for debate in this matter. In no season in which he’s played in the NHL has he EVER failed to commit a foul that was worthy of a match penalty for deliberate intent to injure. That the NHL has failed to impose a lifetime ban on him simply points out that NHL disciplinary mechanisms are a joke.

    When Mario steps up and says, “I want to make a positive change in this League, and I’m starting by voiding Matt Cooke’s contract by reason of serial violations of the moral turpitude clause,” THEN I’ll listen to him.

    Until then, he’s just gaming the refs, like always.

  3. If I’m not mistaken, Crosby has his own house now. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that he is like a nephew to Lemieux. I think the key point is that Mario fears what will happen to today’s kids as they learn from the NHL’s example.

    What’s really sad is a player like Tangradi could end up out of the game before his career really starts, while a player like Gillies could end up cashing paychecks for several years as a “role player.”

  4. I agree with what he said. My position is that leadership is best shown by your actions not just your words (awesome coming from a writer I know. The world is full of hypocrisy).

    Words; however, are empty – until actions prove other wise.

    Those in glass houses….

  5. I think the Pens were not laughing at DiPietro but at the absurdity of a goalie fight in general. No one heard that DiPietro was hurt till the next day. One punch really – the guy is glass.

  6. Just like I thought when the islanders play by play guys said the Pens were “laughing a an injured dipetro” (I mean for all that we know Johnson came to the bench and made a funny face, or talbot made an out of the blue remark about how banana is a funny word). I ask John, how do we know who has and hasn’t said anything to cooke about his play. It’s not fair to assume that the Pens organization hasn’t. Bylsma already said he did, as did Shero, maybe Mario though it would just be best not to pile on cooke. My point is, we don’t know.

  7. Pittsburgh (and western PA for the most part) loves Mario. Mario could wear a Baltimore Ravens jersey to a Steelers home game and most of us would make up some story in our heads that he was trying to promote unity in a league he is not even part of.

    The reason we love him so much actually has little to do with winning the cup, at least to my generation. Please do not get me wrong, I loved 1991 and 1992 as much as anyone else, but I was still a kid as well. I remember Mario much more clearly from the rough years between 95 and 99. The reason for the unconditional love is because Lemieux and his teams over the years have made more trips to Children’s Hospital than the Steelers and Pirates combined. Look at the Mario Lemieux Foundation – . Flat out, this guy gets it. Even today he pushes anyone on the team to make a trip to some group in Pittsburgh in need of a little pick up or star power.

    Now lets take it one step further, the Pens probably could have been the Kansas City Pens if it wasn’t for Mario and his friends doing just about everything they could to keep the team in Pittsburgh. Some folks found his antics to be slightly dirty and some what demanding, but if you watch any political party or deal, and can find a name of someone who gets elected or a big deal done with out a punch or two pulled, god bless them!

    God Bless Mario and if you think he is selfish and petulant, change the channel, we will keep him right at home in the burgh.

    • Mike is spot on with this article. People are embarrassing themselves by bringing up Matt Cooke’s name in regards to last friday night. Almost every team in the league has a player of Cookes ilk on their roster. Downey, Bieksa, Mike Richards, Ruutu (both of them), Ott, and Avery to name a few. There are even players who are now considered legends who played on the edge such as Messier, Hunter, Ciccarelli, Neely and even Howe. All of those guys contributed something to their team other than being a pest, Cooke for example is a 15 goal scorer and an integral part of the leagues #1 penalty killing unit. Trying to justify the actions of Gillies and Martin by noting Cooke just shows ignorance and an anti-Lemieux/Penguins bias. Personally, Im glad the Pens are hated because that almost certainly means they are perceived as a top tier team. If they were terrible, like the Islanders for example, nobody would care about them either way.

  8. If Lemieux doesn’t want to say in 15 years that if only for health problems about anyone, he would not have re-signed Matt Cooke. It’s great that Mario cares, and he IS correct.

    Unfortunately, actions tend to speak louder than words. And Mario did nothing, and said nothing when Cooke drove Fedor Tyutin’s head into the glass a few nights before Friday’s mess with the Isles.

    By the way, I totally agree that the actions of Gillies and Martin deserved harsh suspensions

    • John,

      I agree, Cooke needs to be put on a leash and this is why I feel the league needs to send signals to instigators and goons that while a small amount of what they do is appreciated, after a few over the top actions, the team and player should be disciplined heavily. I realize as a Pens fan I’m a bit of a homer, but Cooke needs leashed up tight for his actions.

    • Name the last owner to call out a suspended player on their team. Can’t do it can you? Cooke was punished. He was talked to by his employers behind closed doors like a professional should be.

      You’ll never get Lemieux’s point because you don’t want to. He wants players to able to skate around without worrying about a sucker-punch or a flying elbow and subsequent taunting by a career AHLer. Neither of which Matt Cooke has -ever done- and will -never- do.

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