Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Canadian native Mario Lemieux spent his record-shattering hockey career with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Awards: Hockey Hall of Fame, Olympic Medal
Mario Lemieux was born in 1965 in Montreal, Canada. He began playing hockey at a young age and shattered several junior hockey records. Lemieux was drafted first overall in the 1984 NHL draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins and led them to two Stanley Cup trophies. He earned awards for Rookie of the Year, MVP, and points leader. While back problems and Hodgkin’s disease forced him to retire, he returned to hockey and bought the franchise. He continues to live in Pittsburgh and raise money for the Mario Lemieux Foundation.
Very few people knew that October 5, 1965, would mark the day that Mario Lemieux, a legendary hockey figure, was born in Montreal, Canada. Lemieux was the third and youngest son of Jean Guy, a construction worker, and Pierette, who did not work. When Lemieux was still a toddler, the family shoveled snow into the house and left the doors open for the snow to freeze. At this point, Lemieux had his first encounter with hockey, as the whole family skated around the house in Ville Emard, a French-speaking suburb of Montreal. Lemieux’s formal hockey education began at the age of three, when his parents took him to the same hockey instructor that his older two brothers had gone to. However, as Sean Rossiter, author of Mario Lemieux, points out, Lemieux excelled at a much faster pace than his older brothers: “When the coach saw Mario deke a goalie at age four, he knew that Mario was something special.” This was only the first sign of Lemieux pulling ahead of expectations. Lemieux had quite an exciting career as a youth hockey player. In fact, as an eight-year-old, Lemieux attracted thousands of fans to his games. His fame continued to build as his name appeared in well-known newspapers at the age of nine. More impressive was the fact that future legendary coaches spoke very highly about his skills. For example, Jeff Z. Klein, in his book The Coolest Guys On Ice, quotes Scotty Bowman, a future Stanley Cup coach, as calling Lemieux “the greatest prospect he had ever seen.” At the age of 15, Lemieux was drafted first overall by the last place Laval Voisins of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Although the team only improved to the middle of the league standings, Lemieux excelled, scoring 30 goals and 66 assists in his first season. Despite having a successful first season, Lemieux felt that he could play better, which gave him the motivation to quit school after grade 10. With his mind completely focused on hockey, Lemieux nearly doubled his points production and led his team to the championship game. During the winter break of 1982, Lemieux was invited to play for Canada’s national team at the World Junior Championships held in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), in the Soviet Union (now Russia). However, he had problems with the coach and got little playing time as Team Canada lost to the Soviet Union and came home with a bronze medal. Heading into his final season of junior hockey, Lemieux spent all of his time working on improving his game. At the end of the season, Lemieux smashed all previous records as he recorded 133 goals and 149 assists. He again received an invitation to play in the World Junior Championships, but due to his previous experiences, Lemieux refused to go, making some people believe that he might be suspended from hockey. However, a judge took Lemieux’s side and made sure that a league did not suspend a player for rejecting the invitation. After the record-breaking season, Lemieux proved that he was prepared to play on the biggest stage, the National Hockey League (NHL). There were also teams in the NHL that were prepared to draft an impact player. The 1983-1984 Pittsburgh Penguins finished with the league’s worst record: 16 wins, 58 losses, and 6 ties. Tim O’Shei, in his biography Mario Lemieux, explains that with the first overall pick of the draft, Eddie Johnson, the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, knew which draft pick had the most potential: “Mario Lemieux is the best player in the draft, by a mile.” During the first-ever televised draft, Lemieux refused to put on a Penguins jersey at the podium when his name was called, which broke a tradition that existed for many years. Lemieux acted in this manner on the advice of his agent, Gus Badali, who repeatedly stated that contract talks were not going smoothly. One week later, he did agree to a contract worth $700,000 over two years, which made him the highest paid rookie in NHL history at that time. Lemieux immediately showed why he was worth the money. During the first shift in his first game against the Boston Bruins, Lemieux carried the puck down the ice on a breakaway and scored on the first shot of his career. The magic continued when he played in Pittsburgh for the first time, as he registered an assist and a goal at the Civic Arena. Lemieux finished his rookie season with 43 goals and 57 assists, becoming only the third rookie in NHL history to score 100 points. These statistics earned him the Calder Trophy, as the Rookie of the Year, and a chance to play in the All-Star Game, in which he was voted the most valuable player. Even as Lemieux illustrated that he was ready to play in the NHL, he was not quite ready for American life. Lemieux grew up in a French-speaking part of Canada, and was not exposed to extensive English until he came to the United States. While he did take classes for several hours a week, they did not help him master the language. Instead, Lemieux decided to watch television soap operas during the day in order to master the language. Lemieux also had arrangements to live with an American family in the suburb of Mt. Lebanon to help him adjust to living in America. Tom and Nancy Matthews did everything that normal parents would do, including cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry for Lemieux. Even while Lemieux lived with his girlfriend, Nathalie Asselin, after the conclusion of his rookie season, the Matthews continued to check up on him. Over the next two seasons, Lemieux began to consistently record remarkable statistics. The highlight of that period, however, did not come in the NHL. Even after Lemieux turned down an invitation to the World Championships, he did decide to play in the Canada Cup in 1987. Lemieux led Team Canada past Czechoslovakia with two goals and an assist and gave them a spot in the finals against the powerful Soviet Union. Even with Lemieux recording two assists, the Soviet Union won the first game of the three game series. During the second game, Canadian coach Mike Keenan decided to put Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, who is known as the greatest player ever, on the same line. Two minutes after this decision, Gretzky assisted a Lemieux go ahead goal, and would later do the same to give Canada a victory in the second game. After scoring his eleventh goal in the tournament, Lemieux secured the championship for Canada. He finished second in points behind Gretzky, the tournament MVP. Rossiter illustrates the fact that the whole experience caused Gretzky to predict the future: “It’s only a matter of time before Mario takes over.” Oddly enough, this would prove to be a very accurate statement. As shown by Mark Stewart in Mario Lemieux: Own the Ice, Lemieux also felt that he grew from the experience: “Every shift, Wayne tried to do the impossible. He gave me a lot of confidence in myself, and I brought it back to Pittsburgh.” The next season, 1987-88, Lemieux continued amazing plays as he was the first player to be voted the All-Star MVP for a second time and for being the first player to have six points in an All-Star game. Lemieux finished the season with 168 points, which was good enough for the scoring title. In addition, he won the Hart Trophy for league MVP as voted on by the league, the Lester B. Pearson award for league MVP as voted on by players, and the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL leader in points. Perhaps the most significant thing of that season was the fact that the Penguins finished with a winning record for the first time in nine years, but missed the playoffs by two points. Although Lemieux was developing his résumé, he desired to lead the Penguins to the playoffs. The next two seasons saw the Penguins hit some high points, such as recording a franchise record in wins. In the same period, Lemieux set another record as he was the first person ever to score a goal in each possible way in one game: even strength, shorthanded, power play, penalty shot, and empty net. He also captured a third All-Star game MVP award, along with Hart, Pearson, and Ross trophies. During a February game in 1990, Lemieux complained of serious back pain to the point that he could not even tie his own skates or shoes. Following that incident, he missed the next 21 games, which was the cause for the Penguins to miss the playoffs. Over the summer, Lemieux had back surgery in hopes that his back would not be a lingering problem. During the operation, doctors learned that there was an infection in the crack of a bone in his back. While doctors claimed the infection might be life threatening, they prescribed him antibiotics which worked extremely well. Lemieux was finally able to begin skating in December, missing 54 games out of an 82 game season, and made his return on January 26, 1991, against the Quebec Nordiques. Lemieux helped his team win with three assists in his first game back. With Lemieux back in the lineup, and another number one draft pick, Jaromir Jagr, playing with Lemieux, the team entered the playoffs with high expectations. After some very hard-fought games, the Penguins made it to the Stanley Cup finals against the Minnesota North Stars. Due to back pain, Lemieux had to sit out of the third game of the series, which allowed the North Stars to take a 2-1 lead in the series. Upon his return, the Penguins took over the series and won their first ever Stanley Cup title. Lemieux captured the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup MVP, recording 16 goals in 23 games. The Penguins, along with Lemieux, did not slow down the next season. Lemieux recorded his 1000th NHL point, and he earned another scoring title. For the second year in a row, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, and Lemieux won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Lemieux’s superb play earned him a new contract, one that paid him $6 million per season, in addition to guaranteed money after his retirement. The expectations for Lemieux continued to grow for the 1992-1993 season. They were matched with excellent play, as Lemieux scored 21 goals after 16 games. However, a few days before Christmas, Lemieux saw a team doctor and told him about a lump on his neck. The doctors learned that Lemieux had Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer. Lemieux decided to put his hockey season to a halt while he underwent radiation treatment. After 22 doses of radiation, Lemieux returned to the ice on March 2, 1993, in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers and recorded a goal and an assist. Even after missing 22 games, Lemieux completed the season with 160 points, capturing another scoring title, Hart Trophy, and Lester B. Pearson Award. The Penguins again made it to the playoffs, but lost in the second round. Over the summer, Lemieux had a few significant events in his life. He married his longtime girlfriend Nathalie Asselin. But perhaps more important to his career, he had more surgery on his back, which allowed him to only play in 22 games during the 1993-1994 season. Lemieux sat out the entire 1994-95 season for similar reasons, but his desire to play only grew stronger. Upon his return, Lemieux played brilliant hockey for the next two years. He surpassed the 500 goal mark, but decided that he would retire at the end of the 1996-97 season. At the end of the year, Lemieux had a career total of 613 goals. On November 17, 1997, Lemieux was inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame without having to wait the mandatory three-year waiting period. A few days later, the famous number 66 worn by Lemieux was retired and raised in the Civic Arena. His involvement with the Penguins was not over. In 1999, due to the Penguins filing for bankruptcy while owing Lemieux money, he was announced as the new principal owner of the organization. Moreover, Lemieux decided in early December of 2000 that he would return to the ice at the age of 35. On December 27, he played against the Toronto Maple Leafs and recorded an assist 33 seconds into the game followed by another assist and a goal. He scored nine goals in his first eight games, and was picked as the captain of his team in the All-Star Game. At the same time, he announced his intentions to play the following season. For the next few seasons, injuries prevented Lemieux from playing full seasons, although he did continue to put up noticeable statistics for his team. In 2002, he received another chance to play for the Canadian national team, which won the gold medal in the Olympics. During that run, he scored 6 goals in 6 games. He continued to play into the 2005-2006 season, which allowed him to play with another number one draft pick, Sidney Crosby. While Lemieux hoped that this opportunity would help the franchise get back to the Stanley Cup, he was forced to retire at the conclusion of the season as a result of an irregular heartbeat. Lemieux’s colorful career finally came to end, as he finished with 690 career goals, which is eighth best in history, 1033 career assists, which is tenth best in history, and 1.88 career points per game, which is second best in history. At the same time, as shown by Robert Dvorchak in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Lemieux made plans to stay involved with the franchise for a long time: “I’m always going to be a Penguin…I’d love to be involved in the franchise.” While his hockey days might be over, his participation in the community is far from doing the same. Lemieux established the Mario Lemieux Foundation, which funds various medical research. The largest fundraiser for this foundation is the Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational, which is an annual golf tournament held in Pittsburgh. The tournament usually attracts celebrities such as Michael Jordan, Dan Marino, Charles Barkley, and many other nationally recognized celebrities. Through sponsorship and admissions, the profit raised from this event goes directly to the Mario Lemieux Foundation. The city of Pittsburgh can expect the legacy of Mario Lemieux to live on many years after his life in Pittsburgh comes to an end.
Dvorchak, Robert. “Lemieux Says He Would Like To Stay In Mix.”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 6 Oct. 2006: D1.
Klein, Jeff Z. The Coolest Guys on Ice. Atlanta: Turner, 1996.