Sports

Blades of Glory: The Incredible Career of Mario Lemieux

Mario Lemieux is one of the greatest hockey players of all time. In the mind of many hockey fans, only Wayne Gretzky might have had a better career than him. The Canadiaan legend played 17 seasons with the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins. For his incredible play, Mario Lemieux was nicknamed “The Magnificent One” or Le Magnifique (as well as “Super Mario”). Mario Lemieux is legendary for his incredible playmaking abilities and his speed and agility despite his large size. Many hockey fans and analysts have speculated that if Mario Lemieux didn’t suffer so many injuries, he would’ve ended up being the greatest player of all time. This legend truly skated on the blades of glory.

Mario Lemieux: All You Need to Know

When was Mario Lemieux born?

Mario Lemieux was born on October 5th, 1965 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and grew up in a multilingual household. Lemieux started playing hockey at the age of three in his basement. Mario Lemieux and his brothers used kitchen spoons as stocks and bottle caps as pucks, before graduating to real hockey equipment.

What position did Mario Lemieux play?

Mario Lemieux played Centre in the National Hockey League (NHL).

How tall is Mario Lemieux?

Mario Lemieux is 6 feet 4 inches tall. He was surprisingly agile for his size.

Mario Lemieux: Career Highlights

1984–1988: Early career

When Mario Lemieux started his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team’s finances were in a horrible shape and the franchise was considering relocation. The team had declared bankruptcy after the 1974–75 season, and by 1983, they were averaging fewer than 7,000 fans per game—less than half of the Civic Arena’s capacity. They had not made the playoffs since 1982, and had not had a winning season since 1979.

He debuted on October 11, 1984, against the Boston Bruins and on his first shift, he stole the puck from Hall of Fame defenceman Ray Bourque and scored a goal with his first NHL shot against Pete Peeters. Later that season, Lemieux played in the NHL All-Star Game and became the first rookie to be named the All-Star Game’s Most Valuable Player. Even though he missed seven games during the season, Mario Lemieux went on to score 100 points and capture the Calder Memorial Trophy as the rookie of the year.

In his sophomore season, Mario Lemieux took his game to the next level, scoring 141 points in the process. He was second only to Wayne Gretzky’s mind numbing 215 points (NHL Record). He won the Lester B. Pearson Award as the NHL’s best regular-season player as voted by his peers. During the 86-87 season, Lemieux missed 17 games due to injury. His play on the rink slipped a little and the Pittsburgh Penguins failed to make the playoffs once again. However, he played in the Canada Cup during the summer of 1987 and set a tournament record 11 goals in 9 games; his last goal, which clinched the Canadian victory with just 1:26 left to play in the third period. Lemieux cited his Canada Cup experience as the reason for his elevated play later on, stating, “Remember, I was only 21 years old at the time. To be around guys like Wayne [Gretzky] and Mark Messier and Paul Coffey … was a tremendous learning experience.”

By the 1987–88 season, Wayne Gretzky had established his monopoly on the Art Ross Trophy for being the league’s leading scorer over seven consecutive seasons. However, Mario Lemieux was fuelled by his Canada Cup experience and finally broke Gretzky’s stranglehold on the title. He scored 168 points en route to his maiden Art Ross Trophy. That was not the only personal accomplishment for Mario Lemieux that year. He won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player, and snagged the All-Star Game MVP award as well. Despite Lemieux’s success, the Penguins finished one point out of the playoffs. There was a silver lining though, the Penguins had their first winning season in a long time.

1988–1992: Championships

During the 1988–89 season, Mario Lemieux tied with Wayne Gretzky as the league leader in assists (114) and led the league with 85 goals and 199 points. He is the only player to get close to Gretzky’s mammoth 200+ point seasons. Lemieux finished the season a close second to Gretzky in voting for the Hart Trophy, and set several milestones and records in the process, becoming the second player to score 70+ goals in two seasons, the fourth player to score 50 goals in 50 games, and the only player to score 13 shorthanded goals in one season. Buoyed in part by Lemieux’ performance, the Penguins made the playoffs for the first time in seven years.

Perhaps the defining moment of Lemieux’s season was on December 31, 1988, in a game against the New Jersey Devils. In that game, Lemieux scored eight points. During the game, Lemieux earned the distinction of becoming the only NHL player to ever score a goal in all five possible game situations in the same game: even-strength, power-play, shorthanded, penalty shot, and empty-net.  Lemieux had another five-goal, eight-point performance against the Philadelphia Flyers during the playoffs when he led the Penguins to a 10-7 victory on April 25, 1989. He tied the NHL record for most goals and points in a postseason game, most goals in a postseason period (four in the first), and most assists in a postseason period (three in the second). However, the Penguins lost the series 4–3.

During the 1989–90 NHL season, Lemieux scored at least one point in 46 consecutive games before he ended the streak by leaving a game due to injury. The streak’s length was second only to Gretzky’s 51-game streak. Lemieux won his third All-Star Game MVP with a four-goal performance. Although he missed 21 games, he finished fourth in the league in scoring with 123 points (45 goals, 78 assists). The Penguins did not qualify for the playoffs.

Lemieux’s back injury worsened into a herniated disc. That situation worsened because of an infection. Mario Lemieux had to undergo back surgery in order to fix the herniated disk. This caused him to miss 50 games of the 1990-91 NHL season. While he was recovering from his injuries, the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy, Ron Francis, and Ulf Samuelsson to bolster their Stanley cup odds. Despite significant back pain, Lemieux scored 16 goals and 28 assists for the playoff lead, and led the Penguins over the Minnesota North Stars for their first Stanley Cup. His 44 playoff points rank second only to Wayne Gretzky’s 47 in 1984–85. For his incredible performance in the playoffs, Mario Lemieux was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player. One of the most famous goals in NHL history is the goal Lemieux scored in the second period of game two. He received the puck in the middle of the centre line and the Penguins’ blue line. After receiving the puck, Lemieux skated by himself into the North Stars zone facing two defencemen and the goalie by himself. Lemieux skirted the puck through one of the defenders’ (Shawn Chambers) legs, skated around him, forced the goaltender to commit left, then switched the puck to his backhand side and slid the puck in before crashing into the net himself. The brief video of the goal has been featured on recent Stanley Cup promo ads by the NHL (played in reverse), as well as the opening montage of Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts.

Mario Lemieux’ 1991-92 season was also affected by injuries. He only managed to play 64 games. However, he still managed to score 131 points and snag the ARt Ross Trophy. During the Patrick Division (now known as the Metropolitan Division) finals, Lemieux suffered a broken right hand after the New York rangers’ Adam Graves slashed at it. Lemieux went on to miss five games but still managed to lead the playoffs with 16 goals and 18 assists. The Penguins swept the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final, and Lemieux won the Conn Smythe Trophy for the second consecutive postseason. Lemieux racked up an astonishing 78 combined points during the 1991 and 1992 playoffs, a two-year total second only to Gretzky’s 82 points as his Edmonton Oilers captured their first two Stanley Cup titles in 1984 and 1985.

1992–1997: Cancer, return, and retirement

The Penguins started the 1992–93 season well, and Lemieux set a franchise record with at least one goal in twelve consecutive games, from October 6 to November 1.  He was on pace to challenge Gretzky’s records of 92 goals in one season (1981–82) and 215 points in one season (1985–86), until January 12, 1993, when he made the shocking announcement that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Lemieux was forced to undergo extensive radiation therapy which really drained his energy. This led to his career and possible survival dangling by a thread. Miraculously, Lemieux only missed two months of action. During that time, the Penguins really struggled. Upon his return to the ice, he trailed Buffalo’s Pat LaFontaine in the scoring race by just 12 points.

On the day of his last radiation treatment, Lemieux miraculously flew to Philadelphia as the Penguins squared off against the Flyers, where he scored a goal and an assist in a 5–4 loss. Before the game Lemieux earned a standing ovation from Philadelphia fans—a rare occurrence for any visiting player, much less a Pittsburgh athlete. With Lemieux back, Pittsburgh won an NHL record 17 consecutive games to finish first overall for the first time in franchise history; their 119 points are still a franchise record. Lemieux scored at an incredible pace, notching an average 2.67 points per game—the third highest points-per-game for a season, behind only Wayne Gretzky’s 1983–84 and 1985–86 averages of 2.77 and 2.69, respectively. This pace for an entire season would have put him well over 200 points. Mario Lemieux did manage to win his fourth scoring title with 160 points for the season, leaving LaFontaine behind by an almost poetic 12 points.

During the Playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins promptly beat the New Jersey Devils in the first round in five games. However, the NEw York Islanders beat them in seven games in a shocking upset. During the series, the aggressive, physical defence of Darius Kasparaitis kept knocking Mario Lemieux off his game. After the season, Lemieux was awarded his second Pearson Trophy, and his first Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, given to the player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.

On July 23, 1993, Lemieux underwent his second back surgery, only this time to repair a herniated muscle. He missed the first ten games of the season to recover from surgery, and missed 48 more games from back problems. After the season, he announced that he would take a leave of absence because of fatigue brought on by his radiation treatment. Lemieux returned for the 1995–96 season, and on October 26, 1995, he scored his 500th career goal in his 605th game, played against the New York Islanders. Lemieux was second only to Gretzky, who scored 500 goals in 575 games. Lemieux finished the season with 69 goals and 92 assists to lead the league; he became the seventh player to win three Hart Trophies, and the fourth player to win five Art Ross Trophies. Despite his return, the Penguins fell to the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Final in seven games.

The next season, Lemieux, playing against the Vancouver Canucks, scored his 600th career goal in his 719th game, and went on to put up his tenth career 100-point season, both the second-most in history after Wayne Gretzky’s 600 goals in 718 games and fifteen 100-point seasons. In his last game against his hometown Montreal, Lemieux tied an NHL record for most goals in a period, with four goals in the third. Lemieux won his sixth scoring title with 122 points (50 goals, 72 assists). On April 6, 1997, Lemieux announced that he planned to retire following the playoffs. The Penguins were eliminated in five games by the Eric Lindros-led Philadelphia Flyers during the first round. In his final game, Mario Lemieux dished out an assist and scored a goal. Despite the typically hostile Philadelphia crowd, Lemieux skated around the ice following the final horn and received a standing ovation from the fans in attendance. When he retired for the first time, Mario Lemieux was the only NHL player in history to average over 2 points per game (1494 points in 745 games). Because of his greatness, Mario Lemieux was enshrined into the Hockey Hall of Fame on November 17, 1997. He was only the ninth player to have the three year waiting period waived.

1997–2000: Post-retirement

The Penguins’ free-spending ways of the early 1990s came at a high price. Through most of the 1990s, Penguins’ owners Howard Baldwin and Morris Belzberg mismanaged the team, owing over $90 million to various creditors. As a consequence, the Penguins asked Lemieux and other prominent players to defer their salaries. EVen that didn’t prove to be enough and the team had to resort to multiple trades to slow the bleeding. Most of the trades backfired since they were made in desperation. 

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ situation hit rock bottom in November 1998 when the team was forced to declare bankruptcy. Throughout the 1998-99, the NHL was abuzz with speculations of the Penguins moving out of Pittsburgh or folding altogether. At this point, Lemieux stepped in with an unusual proposal to buy the team. The Penguins owed him $32.5 million in deferred salary and he was indirectly their largest creditor. He proposed to convert $20 million of his deferred salary into equity, with another $5 million in cash, enough to give him controlling interest. He also promised to keep the team in Pittsburgh. The U.S. bankruptcy court gave preliminary approval to Lemieux’s bid on June 24. Lemieux later said that he would have put in a bid even if he had not been owed the deferred salary. The NHL’s Board of Governors approved his application for ownership on September 1, 1999. Two days later, after Lemieux cut a deal with Fox Sports Pittsburgh (the Penguins’ TV broadcaster) and Spectacor Management Group (which operated the Civic Arena), the court gave final approval to Lemieux’s reorganization plan, allowing him to formally assume control. As a result of this, Mario Lemieux became the first ever former NHL player to become the majority owner of an NHL team. Lemieux assumed the posts of president, chairman and CEO of the Penguins.

Lemieux’s plan was designed to pay everyone the organization owed. In fact, the bankruptcy court approved his bid in part because of the prospect that the debt would be fully retired—a rare feat, considering that unsecured creditors typically get only pennies on the dollar. In his first season as principal owner Pittsburgh went from a loss of $16 million from the previous season into a small profit of $47,000. Ticket sales increased after Lemieux’s takeover and even more after his comeback in 2000, also improving team finances. In August 2005, the Post-Gazette reported that the Penguins had indeed fully paid the principal it owed to each of its creditors, both secured and unsecured. Lemieux was given much of the credit, according to the article, for his insistence that everyone owed be paid. He has since relinquished the president’s and CEO’s posts to Ken Sawyer, but remains the team’s principal owner and chairman. In January 2006, Lemieux confirmed the team was for sale, but would consider offers only from those who will keep the team in Pittsburgh.

2000–2006: Coming out of retirement

Late in 2000, there were rumours that Lemieux was attempting a comeback. After he announced his comeback to the sport, Mario Lemieux also signed a “career spanning deal” with Nike. This deal would include Lemieux endorsing their line of footwear and their golf equipment. It is said that the deal was worth $500,000 (US) a season and would remain in effect for the rest of his career. At the press conference confirming his return, Lemieux indicated part of his reason was that his only son Austin, then four, wanted to see his father play.

On December 27, 2000, he returned to the NHL against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The game was nationally broadcast on ESPN2 in the US and on Hockey Night in Canada. Lemieux proved that his scoring touch had not disappeared by scoring a goal and three points, including an assist 33 seconds into the first shift of his return. While Jaromír Jágr remained captain of the Penguins, Lemieux was named captain of the North American All-Stars during the midseason All-Star game in Denver, Colorado. Despite playing in only 43 games in 2000–01, Lemieux scored 76 points to finish 26th in scoring, finishing the season with the highest points-per-game average that season among NHL players. Between 2001 and his final retirement in 2006, he held the highest points per game average in the NHL. Lemieux was selected as one of the finalists for the Hart Memorial Trophy and Lester B. Pearson NHLPA awards and earned a selection on the postseason NHL All-Star Second Team.

Lemieux led the Penguins in the postseason and led in playoff scoring for much of it. His team surprised many by going to the Eastern Conference finals, knocking off the higher-seeded Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres along the way in six and seven games, respectively. The Penguins eventually lost to the top seed New Jersey Devils. Mario Lemieux failed to score a goal during the entire five game series. Lemieux finished Game Five in the penalty box after slashing the Devils’ John Madden; afterwards Lemieux signed his stick and handed it to a young fan.

Before the start of the 2001–02 season, Pittsburgh was forced to trade most of their expensive players, so the team plummeted to the bottom of the NHL and missed the playoffs in each of the next four seasons. Lemieux again resumed the captaincy, as Jaromír Jágr was sent to the Washington Capitals. However, Lemieux was only able to appear in 24 games because of a plethora of injuries. He also skipped some Penguins games in 2001–02 so he could be in condition to play what would be his only chance at the Olympics in his career. AFter the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Lemieux was only able to play one game before a nagging hip injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. He was criticised by a Pittsburgh journalist for prioritizing Team Canada over the Penguins. Radio show host Mark Madden said he would donate $6,600 to the Mario Lemieux Foundation if the hockey great ever scored in a faceoff. On December 23, 2002, the Penguins played the Buffalo Sabres in Pittsburgh and Lemieux, who was aware of the challenge, made good on it when he scored the game-winning goal right off a faceoff during the third period.

In 2002–03, at the age of 37, Lemieux led the NHL in scoring for most of the season but missed most of the games towards the end of the schedule and finished eighth in scoring with 91 points in only 67 games. Mario Lemieux only played 10 games during the 2003–04 season.

After the lock-out concluded, Lemieux returned to the ice for the 2005–06 season. Hopes for the Penguins were high due to the salary cap and revenue sharing, which enabled the team to compete in the market for several star players. The Penguins had also got the first pick in the draft, and they used it to draft superstar Sidney Crosby. Lemieux opened up his home to Crosby to help the rookie settle in Pittsburgh, and served as Crosby’s mentor.

Player/owner status

Lemieux’s unique status as player and owner placed him in a potential conflict of interest with respect to NHL labour negotiations. Because of his owner status, Mario Lemieux lost his membership to the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA). However, he continued to pay union dues so that his pension wasn’t discontinued. By agreement with the NHLPA, Lemieux was paid the average league salary of about $1.4 million and it was from this amount that his union dues were calculated and deducted. He did not vote in owners’ meetings, delegating this role to a Penguins vice-president. Lemieux suggested that the NHL should go the way of the National Football League and introduce a hard salary cap. Lemieux and fellow NHL team executive Gretzky tried one last time to get the parties to agree but it was to no avail and the entire season was lost.

2006–present: Second and final retirement, statue unveiling

The statue of Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

On January 24, 2006, Mario Lemieux retired from the sport of hockey for the second and final time. He was 40 years old at the time of the announcement. Not only was an older Lemieux unable to keep up with the fast pace of the “new NHL”, he also struggled with atrial fibrillation, which caused him to experience irregular heartbeats. Although he had put up points at a pace that most NHL forwards would be very content with (22 points in 26 games) in his last season, Lemieux still chose to retire and said that “I can no longer play at a level I was accustomed to in the past.” That brought the curtains down to one of the most glorious careers in the history of the NHL and North American sports in general. Mario Lemieux had his statue erected in Pittsburgh outside the Consol Energy Centre on March 7th, 2012.

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