Born October 5, 1965 (age 46) in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Center, principal owner of and chairman of the board for the Pittsburgh Penguins
Happy 46th birthday to the savior of the Penguins! Lemieux was born of a working-class family (his mom stayed at home, his dad was an engineer) and started playing at age 3 in his basement. Before he had real equipment, he used kitchen spoons as sticks and bottle caps as pucks. Eventually his dad built a home rink for he and his older brothers to use. Family legend has it they’d pack snow into the living room so the brothers could practice after dark. Lemieux began playing for real with the QMJHL’s Laval Voisins, being drafted at age 15, at which time he declared he’d break league records. Pretty big talk for a young kid, but Mario did it, breaking the record for most points in a season. When he was draft-ready, he said he’d play for whomever wanted him. However, he and his agents were deadlocked with the Penguins when his name was called, so he didn’t shake the hand of Pittsburgh’s GM or put on the jersey. The negotiations were later sorted out and 3,000 people watched the draft at Pittsburgh’s old arena at a time when most games drew less than 7,000 attendees. Yes, there was once a time when the Penguins were teetering on the brink of relocation, having already declared bankruptcy before Mario’s time. But literally on his very first shift ever in an October 1984 bout against Boston, Lemieux took the puck from Ray Bourque and scored on his very first shot. Perhaps this helped put Pittsburgh back on a path to success?
While Mario played pretty well throughout the 1980s, one incredibly interesting moment came in December 1988, when I was a mere newborn baby. In a New Year’s Eve outing with New Jersey, Lemieux became the only player ever to score a goal in all five scenarios (even-strength, power play, shorthanded, penalty shot and empty net). He had a great 1988-89 season, but the next one was a little different. A back injury developed into a herniated disc–which is wicked painful–and worse, it got infected. Surgery meant he missed 50 games and the Penguins went on a shopping spree to find guys who could help on their Cup run. However, he was back, although in pain, to help the team beat the old Minnesota North Stars for the Cup and he nabbed the Conn Smythe. 1991-92 was injury-prone for him, but the Penguins swept the Blackhawks and repeated as Cup champions (Lemieux got the Smythe again). Things were about to get more difficult for Lemieux, though, when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January 1993. He had to have radiation and the Penguins really struggled without him. After his last treatment, he flew to Philadelphia and played against the Flyers–earning a standing ovation from Flyers fans. Wow. He’d manage another standing O from Philly fans when he retired (first time) in 1997 after his final game.
The Hall of Fame waived the three-year waiting period and inducted Lemieux as soon as he retired. The team was going to need his help–behind the scenes. It had been badly mismanaged throughout the 1990s and had declared bankruptcy again. There were whispers on the wind of the dreaded R word. The management had asked him and other players to defer their salaries, which gave him an idea. Because of that salary deferment, Lemieux had become the team’s largest creditor. His idea? Convert that money to equity, buy the team and keep it in Pittsburgh. (He said he would’ve bid even without this inspiration, though.) His plan was approved and he made sure everyone who needed to be paid got paid, which happened by 2005. Oh, and then he returned to the team as a player in December 2000. His appearances were reduced because of injuries and then conditioning to play in the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, which he did play in, cognizant of the fact that it might be his only chance to go Olympic. In 2002 he made good on a radio talker’s bet to donate $6600 to his charity if he scored off a faceoff–by scoring off a faceoff that same night. His appearances kept decreasing during the pre-lockout era, but after the lockout, he expressed great hospitality to Pittsburgh’s first post-lockout draftee, Sidney Crosby. He’s also been hospitable to other Pens like Marc-Andre Fleury and Jaromir Jagr when they were newbies.
He retired again in 2006, feeling unable to keep up with the pace of post-lockout hockey and dealing with atrial fibrillation. He did help ensure the Pens’ long-term settlement in Pittsburgh by laying the plans for the Consol Energy Center, which carried with it 30 years of Penguins in Pittsburgh. Soon thereafter, he got his third Stanley Cup, as an owner this time. Lemieux’s trophy cabinet is full to bursting and an entire post in and of itself could be devoted to the things he’s achieved. Among other things, like 12 Penguins records and 9 league-wide records, he’s been given the National Order of Quebec (CQ) and the Order of Canada (OC). He’s a naturalized American citizen and is rather politically active–a registered Republican, he’s donated to both Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign and to former senator and current presidential candidate Rick Santorum. He’s also the proud papa of four kids: three girls and one boy.
Lemieux continues to be a strong presence for Pittsburgh and every Penguins fan has him to thank for their team’s continued existence in the City of Bridges, simple as that. But fans of every team can appreciate his myriad achievements!