At 58 years old, Mario Lemieux has this physical status:
At the start of Lemieux's career, the Penguins were in financial turmoil and there were rumors of 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. Despite missing seven games during the season, Lemieux scored 100 points and won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the rookie of the year.
The next season, Lemieux finished second in league scoring with 141 points, behind Wayne Gretzky's NHL-record 215 points. He won the Lester B. Pearson Award as the NHL's best regular-season player as voted by his peers. Lemieux missed 17 games of the 1986–87 NHL season—his point production slipped, and the Penguins once again failed to make the playoffs. 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, broke a tie with the Soviet team with 1:26 remaining 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 already won seven consecutive Art Ross Trophies for leading the league in points. That season, fuelled by his Canada Cup experience, Lemieux scored 168 points and won his first NHL scoring title. He also won his first Hart Memorial Trophy as the league's Most Valuable Player to his team, and the All-Star Game MVP award after a record-setting six-point game. Despite Lemieux's success, the Penguins finished one point out of the playoffs. They did, however, have their first winning record in nine years.
In the 1988–89 season, Lemieux led the league with 114 assists (tied with Gretzky) and 85 goals for 199 points; he is the only player to approach 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 and became the only player in NHL history to 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 in a 10–7 victory during the postseason against the Philadelphia Flyers 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 progressed into a herniated disc, which subsequently developed an infection. On July 11, 1990, Lemieux underwent back surgery to fix the disk, and he missed 50 games in the 1990–91 NHL season. In his absence, the Penguins acquired players Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy, Ron Francis, and Ulf Samuelsson in hopes of becoming serious contenders for the Stanley Cup. 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. Lemieux won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player. His 44 playoff points rank second only to Gretzky's 47 in 1985.
One of the most famous goals in NHL history is the goal Lemieux scored in the second period of game two. Receiving the puck between the Penguins' blue line and the centre line, Lemieux skated solo 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 sliding the puck in before crashing into the net himself. The brief video of the goal has been since 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.
Lemieux played only 64 games in his injury-plagued 1991–92 season. Despite missing several games, he won his third Art Ross Trophy with 131 points. During the second game of the Patrick Division finals, the New York Rangers' Adam Graves slashed and broke Lemieux's left hand; Lemieux missed five games, but still led the playoffs with 16 goals and 18 assists. The Penguins swept the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals, 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 Oilers won their first and second Stanley Cup titles in 1984 and 1985.
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 announcement that he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. He received aggressive radiation treatments which caused him to miss two months of play. When Lemieux returned, he was 12 points behind Buffalo's Pat LaFontaine in the scoring race.
On the day of his last radiation treatment, Lemieux flew to Philadelphia to play 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 and the team's 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 points per game, respectively. Lemieux won his second straight and fourth overall scoring title, finishing with 160 points (69 goals, 91 assists) in 60 games, beating out LaFontaine by 12 points despite playing in 24 fewer games. Throughout the season, Lemieux scored at least one point in 54 of his 60 games played.
The Penguins dispatched the New Jersey Devils in the first round in five games, but were upset by the New York Islanders in seven. After the season, Lemieux was awarded his second Hart Trophy, as well as the 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, this time to repair a herniated muscle. He missed the first ten games of the season to recover from surgery and missed an additional 48 games due to the injury. 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 against the New York Islanders, he scored his 500th career goal in his 605th game. Lemieux reached 500 goals at the second fastest rate. Only Gretzky achieved the plateau faster scoring 500 goals in 575 games. Lemieux finished the season with 69 goals and 92 assists to lead the league and then 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. Lemieux scored one goal and earned an assist in his final game. Despite the typically hostile Philadelphia crowd, Lemieux skated around the ice following the final horn and received a standing ovation. Upon his first retirement, Lemieux became the only player to retire from the NHL with a greater than 2 points per game average (1494 points in 745 games). On November 17, 1997, Lemieux was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, becoming the ninth player in history to have the mandatory three-year waiting period waived.
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. The team was also forced to make several trades to stop the bleeding, most of which backfired.
The situation became so dire that the Penguins were forced to declare bankruptcy in November 1998. For most of the 1998–99 NHL season, it looked like the Penguins would either move out of town or fold altogether. At this point, Lemieux stepped in with an unusual proposal to buy the team. Years of deferred salaries, adding up to $32.5 million, had made him the Penguins' 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. This made the then-retired star the first former NHL player to become majority owner of his former 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 later relinquished the president's and CEO's posts to Ken Sawyer, but remained chairman and principal owner. In January 2006, Lemieux confirmed the team was for sale, but would consider offers only from those who would keep the team in Pittsburgh.
Late in 2000, there were rumours that Lemieux was attempting a comeback. Upon announcing his comeback, Lemieux also signed a "career spanning deal" with Nike to wear their equipment on the ice, and to endorse their products off the ice. 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. In fact, he had the highest points-per-game average amongst NHL players for the entire period from his 2001 return until his final retirement in 2006. Lemieux was one of the three 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 lost in five games to the top-seeded New Jersey Devils, as their players held Lemieux and Jágr without a goal that 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 only appeared in 24 games, partially due to injuries that would also plague him for the next three seasons. 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. However, Lemieux played only one more game after the Salt Lake City Olympics before being out for the rest of the season due to a nagging hip problem, leading one Pittsburgh columnist to demand that Lemieux apologize for making Team Canada his priority.
Radio show host Mark Madden said he would donate $6,600 to the Mario Lemieux Foundation if the hockey great ever scored off 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. Lemieux missed all but ten 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. Another reason for optimism was the Penguins winning the lottery for the first draft pick, enabling them to select Sidney Crosby. Lemieux opened up his home to Crosby to help the rookie settle in Pittsburgh, and served as Crosby's mentor.
Lemieux's unique status as player and owner placed him in a potential conflict of interest with respect to NHL labour negotiations. Because he was also an owner, Lemieux was no longer a member of the National Hockey League Players Association, although he still paid union dues to maintain his pension. 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. He suggested that the NHL adopt a salary structure similar to the National Football League, which has a hard salary cap. Lemieux and fellow NHL team executive Gretzky brought the parties together in a last-ditch effort to save what remained of the 2004–05 season, but no agreement was reached and the season was lost.
On January 24, 2006, Lemieux announced his second and permanent retirement from professional hockey at the age of 40. This followed a half-season in which he struggled not only with the increased speed of the "new NHL" but also 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 remarked that "I can no longer play at a level I was accustomed to in the past."
In October 2006, Lemieux's ownership group announced that it had reached an agreement to sell the Penguins to Research In Motion Chairman and Co-CEO Jim Balsillie. However, Balsillie unexpectedly rescinded his offer two months later after an apparent dispute with the NHL Board of Governors over purchasing conditions, despite Balsillie having earlier pledged to the Board that he would not relocate the team. Lemieux was offended that Balsillie had pulled out at last minute and initially refused to return Balsillie's deposit, saying that it was in breach of their agreement.
On March 13, 2007, Lemieux's ownership group announced a final agreement for a new multi-purpose arena, eventually to be named Consol Energy Center, to be built across the street from Mellon Arena. The deal keeps the Penguins in Pittsburgh for at least 30 years. Lemieux was instrumental in negotiating this deal, despite outside efforts to move the team to Kansas City. It was later revealed that Lemieux did visit Kansas City only to put pressure on the city and state to push through plans for the new arena.
The Penguins returned to the playoffs, losing in five games to the Ottawa Senators in 2007, and making the Finals in 2008 where they lost in six games to the Detroit Red Wings. On June 12, 2009, Lemieux won his third Stanley Cup title, this time as an owner as the Penguins won a rematch with the Red Wings in the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, in seven games. In 2015, Lemieux and Ron Burkle hired Morgan Stanley to explore the possibility of selling the Penguins. On June 12, 2016, the Penguins defeated the San Jose Sharks in the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals, in six games, to give Lemieux his fourth Stanley Cup, his second as an owner. Almost exactly a year later, on June 11, 2017, Lemieux won his third Stanley Cup as an owner upon the Penguins six-game defeat of the Nashville Predators.
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