Mario Lemieux, also known as ‘The Magnificent’ and ‘Super Mario’, was an exceptional player, a dangerous attacker with the powerful build of a defenceman, a natural goal-scorer that often baffled his opponents, a striker unusually blessed with the grace and skill to make it all seem effortless. A survivor who successfully battled injuries and health problems that ranged from chronic back pain to cancer, he is rare amongst NHL stars in staying with the same club for his entire League career. His loyalty to the Pittsburgh Penguins grew so strong that he eventually stepped in to save the team from bankruptcy, by buying the franchise.
Mario Lemieux was born on October 5, 1965 in Montreal, Canada. The youngest of three brothers, Lemieux, as is so often the case with great players, began at an early age. At just three years old, he was learning the rudiments of hockey, using household objects as sticks and pucks, and joining his brothers in basement practice sessions. The Lemieux family was very supportive, and the father, a builder, obliged the boys with a home-built hockey rink outside their house.
Jean-Guy Lemieux’s dedication to his sons’ sport was amply rewarded, and both Mario and Alain would go on to play in the junior leagues. Mario looked up to his older brother, and was inspired by him. As he would later say, “I learned a lot just by watching him [Alain] when I was young, I think every kid learns from his older brother. He was a very good hockey player, very skilled. He showed that by what he did in junior and by making it to the NHL.”
The younger brother was destined to outshine the older, however, and Mario was a sensation when he played for three seasons with the Laval Voisin in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). By the end of the 1983-84 season, his last with the Voisin, he had scored a record 133 goals – three more than his childhood hero Guy Lafleur, the previous record holder – and had added 149 assists for 282 points in 70 games. This brilliant performance earned Lemieux the distinction of Canadian Junior Hockey Player for 1984, and he had generated quite a buzz when he announced his move up to the Majors that year.
Rookie of the Year
Lemieux was chosen first overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft. At the time, the Penguins had hit rock bottom, having finished in last place for the previous two seasons, and desperately needed a goal scorer to recapture their dwindling fan base. Initial difficulties in contract negotiation between his agent and Pittsburgh’s management, led to Lemieux making statements that many fans interpreted as arrogant. Nevertheless, Eddie Johnston, then general manager with the Penguins, signed Lemieux to a two-year contract for $600,000, along with a $150,000 signing bonus. Lemieux immediately proved he was worth it.
On his first regular-season game, on his first shift, the 20-year old rookie boldly stole the puck from Boston Bruins star defenceman, Ray Bourque, and swiftly made his way to goalie Pete Peeters’ net. Minutes into his first NHL game, Lemieux scored his first goal. He continued delivering to become one of the few in the history of the League to have scored 100 goals as a rookie, a feat that earned him the Calder Memorial Trophy as the best new player. In addition, Lemieux was chosen most valuable player in the All-Star Game, the first rookie to earn such a distinction.
Mario Lemieux kept those 100+ seasons coming, to the delight of the fans. The rising star kept pushing himself forwards, developing into a consummate all-round player. Lemieux kept learning, even as he dazzled his peers. While representing his native Canada in the 1987 Canada Cup, Lemieux, assisted by Wayne Gretzky, shot down Soviet goalie Sergei Mylnikov, securing a 6-5 lead and eventual victory for Canada. Despite such a show of skill, a humble Lemieux would later say of that Canada Cup, “I learned so much about how the great players work and conduct themselves. Remember, I was only 21 years old at the time. To be around guys like Wayne and Mark Messier and Paul Coffey, guys who’d already had so much success and had won Stanley Cups, was a tremendous learning experience.”
Mario Lemieux’s goal count continued to rise in the following seasons, including a spectacular game on New Year’s Eve 1988, in which he scored five goals in the five different ways – even-strength, power-play, shorthanded, penalty shot and empty-net – in which it is possible to do in hockey, something no other player has managed since. The next season saw the first of what, unfortunately, would be many serious injuries for Lemieux: a back injury turned into a herniated disk and then developed into an infection, which kept him off the ice for all but 26 games. Still, he won 44 points that season and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the best man in the playoffs. Lemieux sat out most of the ’90-’91 season due to injury, but brought home a Stanley Cup notwithstanding.
In January 1993, Lemieux was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer. He lost two months of the season while undergoing radiation treatment. Mario Lemieux managed to defeat this opponent as well, and returned to lead the league in scoring.
Lemieux took the entire ’94-’95 season off to recover, but returned the following season to win the Hart trophy as MVP and his fifth Art Ross Trophy as the league’s points leader. He announced his retirement in 1997 and the Hockey Hall Of Fame inducted him immediately, a very rare event, waiving its usual waiting period.
Mario spent his retirement doing something no other NHL player before him had done: buying his former club. He did this to save the Penguins from bankruptcy due to years of bad management. Although he worked hard as owner to put the franchise’s financial matters back on track, the lure of the ice proved too hard to resist and in 2000 he made a surprise comeback. He had been away for three years but still led the league in points-per-game average. In 2002, he led the Canadian men’s team to Gold in the Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City.
A host of health problems, including an irregular heartbeat, led Mario Lemieux to announce his definitive retirement from professional hockey in January 24, 2006. He was truly one of the greatest players in the history of the sport.