Lemieux's Impact Beyond Everybody's Wildest Dreams
ROOT SPORTS play-by-play announcer Paul Steigerwald – then the Penguins director of marketing – was at the Montreal Forum the day Pittsburgh drafted Mario Lemieux first overall, and picked him up from the airport a few days later when the teenager came to Pittsburgh for the first time to sign his contract.
Back then, of course Steigerwald had a feeling – like everyone else – that Lemieux was going to be special, but no one could have never foretold just how special he would be to this franchise and the city.
There was much fanfare surrounding the incredibly gifted 18-year-old hockey player from Montreal, Quebec. And he carried what could have been an impossibly heavy weight of expectations, as Lemieux was dubbed the salvation, the savior, the Messiah of franchise that had filed for bankruptcy in 1975 and was struggling to survive.
“He gave us very, very strong hope for a great future,” Steigerwald said. “There were other things always dragging us down at that time, having to do with ownership, the difficulty of maintaining the business. From the second and third year of their existence, the Penguins were constantly under the specter of wondering if they’re going to go out of business.”
Well, it's been exactly 30 years since that day, and what Lemieux has ended up meaning to this franchise since then was beyond everybody’s wildest dreams.
“It’s one thing to draft a great player, and you can have hopes that he’ll lead you to the Promised Land – but no one ever in their wildest imagination could have seen what was coming in terms of the profile he would have and the impact he would on this franchise for as long as he’s had it,” Steigerwald said. “And then to end up being the owner, it’s just not something any of us would have postulated.”
On the ice, Lemieux became arguably the greatest player in NHL history, dominating play for parts of three decades despite a relentless series of medical setbacks, including multiple back surgeries and a battle with Hodgkin’s disease.
He won six scoring titles, three league MVP awards, two Conn Smythe trophies as playoff MVP and captained two Stanley Cup championship teams as a player. He is the No. 8 all-time scorer in league history with 1,723 points in just 915 games played.
Oh, and Lemieux saved hockey in Pittsburgh not once, but twice – first when he came here as a player, and again when he put together an ownership group to buy the Penguins out of bankruptcy in 1999. Since then, the team has become one of the premiere franchises in not just the NHL, but in all of sports.
It’s truly remarkable to think about just how far the organization has come with Lemieux, first as a player and then an owner – from one of the worst, perpetually under a dark, threatening cloud of potential extinction, to one of the best, a model franchise. He virtually singlehandedly took this franchise from its darkest days to its brightest.
But to see just how big Lemieux’s impact off the ice has been as well – specifically with his Foundation and youth hockey in the area – it makes it difficult to put into words everything that this one man has accomplished.
We dug out two articles originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: one posted before the Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux on June 9, 1984, and one shortly after (they were both written by current Penguins vice president of communications Tom McMillan). They're both must-reads on this 30th anniversary of that fateful day.
Le Grand Lemieux
LAVAL, Quebec – Mario Lemieux has the puck now, and 4,000 French Canadians in the 3,069-seat Centre Sportif Laval lean forward. Quebec province legend evolves from these moments, Lemieux swooping down on some thoroughly horrified fellow in the goal crease, the fellow probably wishing he was standing in Chicoutimi somewhere in the snow. National Hockey League scouts stop their jabbering. Le Grand M! But Patrick Roy, who has been tending some splendid goal this night for Les Bisons de Granby, reacts courageously, stands his ice.
The shot screeches wide
It has been this kind of night for Lemieux, the most prolific single-season scorer in the history of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. “You didn’t see Mario at his best tonight,” says Jean Begin, the apologetic Laval coach. “Tonight was a tough game for him, because he had been injured. Because they covered him a lot.”
Full story here.
Lemieux Gives Pens Sign of Hope
He stood there, finally, with a Penguin on his chest, smiling, saying all the right things, trying very hard to look like a messiah.
Mario Lemieux – teen-age hockey player, No. 1 draft choice, salvation of a sagging franchise – came to town for the first time yesterday to sign a contract and hear the salutations with his own ears. Lemieux, you understand, is an 18-year-old French Canadian; all around him, grown up Americans in three-piece suits talked about rebirth, about this being the most meaningful occurrence in 17 years of turbulence and last place finishes and forechecking the IRS.
“I try not to think about what they said,” Lemieux was low-keying it on the day the Penguins anointed him guardian of their future. “I just want to go out on the ice and do the best I can.”
Full story here.
TOP 10 MOMENTS
As we celebrate 30 years of Lemieux’s impact on the Penguins and hockey, Sam Kasan takes a look at Lemieux’s eight most memorable career moments (obviously, we couldn’t fit them all due to his expansive list of accomplishments).
After emerging victorious in his fight against cancer, Lemieux created the Mario Lemieux Foundation to assist others who are not so fortunate. Their goal is to find a cure for cancer. And thanks to Lemieux's commitment and dedication, the Foundation has grown incredibly since its founding and is doing everything in its power to help achieve that ultimate goal.
When the Penguins drafted Lemieux, it didn’t just change the course of professional hockey in the city forever – it changed the area’s youth hockey as well.
Pittsburgh has become a hockey town, and the incredible growth of amateur hockey in the region over the years can all be traced back to No. 66’s arrival.
Before Lemieux arrived, Pittsburgh was a Steelers town, and the football team had earned that adoration as they had already won Super Bowls since the first one was played 14 years earlier, in 1967 – the same year the Penguins entered the National Hockey League as an expansion franchise.
But once the gifted prospect Lemieux officially became a Penguin and came to town, everything started to change with the excitement and anticipation that followed him (and that he lived up to). He made Pittsburghers interested in watching the Penguins again, and having a once-in-a-lifetime player like Mario on their team created many new fans – who in turn spread their love and passion for the game to their friends and family. And so it began.
There were only a handful of ice rinks scattered around the area when Lemieux first came to town – six, to be exact. Now, there are closer to 50 and USA Hockey membership has swelled to 13,060 in Western Pennsylvania, according to their most recent official membership record (done for the 2012-13 season).
For many kids born around the time that Lemieux led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups a few years later in 1991 and ’92, the first championship trophies in franchise history, their parents not only later made them fans of the game – they wanted to play it as well. Mario is the reason so many children started playing hockey in a town known for its football.
As J.T. Miller – who became the highest-drafted Pittsburgh amateur player in NHL history when the New York Rangers selected him in the first round (15th overall) in 2011 – said, “I was born in ’93 and before that, my dad wasn't a huge hockey fan. But when the Pens won in ’91 and ’92, that’s when he started watching hockey. So then he became a huge Pens fan and he wanted me to play when he saw that the Pens won, so that’s kind of how I got started playing. I’ve been playing ever since.”
That same sentiment was echoed by the other members of that draft class, which saw four total players from the Pittsburgh youth hockey system taken in the first three rounds – the biggest draft class in area history.
Now, just three years later, all four have seen playing time in the NHL and a couple of them are developing into bonafide stars, with Brandon Saad winning the Stanley Cup with Chicago last year and John Gibson taking over starting duties for Anaheim in Round 2 of the 2014 playoffs.
They’re a perfect example of how far youth hockey in the area has come in the three decades since Mario first arrived. Back then it was nothing; now it’s grown to the point where talented young players don’t feel the need to leave for states like Minnesota or Michigan to train in order to get their best chance, like they did before.
They’re choosing to stay and develop here in Pittsburgh’s amateur hockey system, where they feel they are getting the kind of training they would anywhere else. And they’re making the jump to the junior, college and pro levels just fine. Those players have showcased the growth of youth hockey in the area and have put Pittsburgh on the map – one that leads back to Lemieux no matter where you go.