The House That Mario Built

How a jock without a high school diploma saved a franchise and built the best brand in the NHL.

Pictured above: The Mario Mosaic that stands at the entrance to the CONSOL Energy Center.

 

Imagine for a moment that the company you work for owed you more than three years worth of salary.

Only the company recently declared bankruptcy, and they have no plans to pay you.

What would you do?

You would probably have a meltdown, pee in the boss’ coffee cup, drink that annoying accountant’s precious soy milk in the break-room fridge and do doughnuts in the parking lot until there was a giant skid-marked mural of a middle finger.

And that is why you are not Mario Lemieux.

In 1998, the recently retired Lemieux was eating dinner with some friends and advisers at Morton’s The Steakhouse in downtown Pittsburgh. The Penguins franchise was in financial ruin and placed into bankruptcy. The team owed Lemieux $26 million in deferred salary from years of mismanagement. Worse yet, the Penguins were on the verge of moving out of Pittsburgh.

Lemieux could have been vindictive. He could have played golf in Florida, eaten porterhouses and lit cigars with $100 bills while he watched the demise of a franchise that had lied to him, and perhaps the death of a league that he called “a garage league” in 1991 after officials failed to protect him from the slashing, hacking, hooking and dirty play that would eventually lead to the Rangers’ Adam Graves purposely using his stick as a samurai sword to fracture Lemieux’s wrist during the ’92 playoffs.

Graves only got a four-game suspension, and the league never took action to protect Lemieux in the years after the incident.

Super Mario could have said, “Oh, so you need me now, huh?”

Instead, he thought of the fans: That night in Morton’s, he started rallying investors to save an organization that had been losing millions for several seasons.


“I’m gonna make them an offer they can’t refuse.”

“The fans have been very loyal to me over the years, supporting my career,” Lemieux said. “They were there for some tough times, too—two back surgeries, cancer. So the relationship has only improved throughout the years. To lose hockey here would be devastating not only for the hockey side but for the city.”

The Mario takeover was my JFK moment. I will never forget where I was when the rumors started to turn into something more tangible. I had just watched the Penguins lose another snore-fest to the New Jersey Devils, and I was sitting in the bowels of the parking garage across the street from the Igloo. The traffic was at a standstill, as usual. The radio was cutting in and out.

Then Mike Lange’s voice came in through the static. He was excited. “Mario Lemieux expressing interest in an ownership stake to keep the team in Pittsburgh.”

The parking garage went nuts. People started honking their horns to the rhythm of Let’s Go Pens.

For a moment at least, there was hope. Little did we know how many more memories were yet to come.

By 2003, the Penguins would flirt with bankruptcy again.

By 2005, we got The Kid, and the team had paid off all its creditors from the bankruptcy. Lemieux had seen to it in his proposal to buy the team that the new ownership’s plan would pay back everyone.

By 2009, Lord Stanley came back to Pittsburgh. Mimicking the perseverance of its owner, the team overcame seemingly insurmountable odds against the Red Wings, inspired by a simple text message from Super Mario:

“This is a chance of a lifetime to realize your childhood dream to win a Stanley Cup. Play without fear and you will be successful! See you at center ice.”


As a player, Hodgkin’s survivor and a businessman,
Mario has lived without fear.

On Tuesday, the Penguins celebrated Mario Lemieux’s 45th birthday with the unveiling of a 20-foot mosaic dedicated to his career. The mosaic is made up of more than 21,000 personal photos of fans who donated money to the Mario Lemieux Foundation and construction workers who built the CONSOL Energy Center.

“This is a fitting tribute to Mario because it is more about the fans than Mario himself, which is what his legacy is,” Penguins CEO and President David Morehouse said at the event.

Perhaps the only thing more amazing than Mario’s grace on the ice has been his brilliance as an owner and community servant since stepping away from the game. While so many seemingly immortal sports heroes have shown themselves to be tragically human once the spotlights go dim (Jordan’s cancerous competitiveness, Gretzky’s whithering charisma, Tiger’s sordid sexploits), Lemieux’s legend only seems to grow.

From day one as an owner, he and Burkle targeted a fanbase that could barely scrounge up enough money in the cracks of their futons to buy a pizza: Students. The very people who sat way up near the Igloo’s dome as children watching Mario’s greatness unfold before their eyes; who begged for broken sticks over the railing above the Penguins’ locker room; who shivered outside the players’ parking lot after the games, waiting for a playeranyone, even a goonto sign their jersey; who imitated Le Magnifique’s triple-deke in their driveways.


I was one of those kids.

Thanks to Lemieux’s foresight, they could buy a student rush ticket for $20 and watch a young, raw Penguins team get eviscerated by the Devils on a Tuesday night when the yuppies would rather watch at home.

Now, 167 consecutive sellouts later, the Penguins are an immense success. Yet despite season ticket waiting lists and scalper values going through the roof, Lemieux has kept the student rush line open, allocating a few hundred tickets for the die-hards who are willing to huddle outside the arena six hours before face-off.

This morning, coach Dan Bylsma and CEO Morehouse even brought the waiting students boxes of doughnuts.


Now there's a CEO who gets it.

The Internet is abuzz with rumors that Mario is going to suit up for one more shift tonight—a final victory lap in the game-room of his new house. But that won’t happen. That sort of glory-hunting would be too much like Jordan, or Gretzky, or Favre, or any other fading star who can’t accept their own mortality (though it is quite a coincidence that Mario made his return to the ice against the Flyers in 1993, the night of his last radiation treatment.)

Lemieux strikes me as a man who understands his place in life. He stared death in the face in 1993 while at the height of his powers, after all. He stood straight through a grievous back injury that stopped him from being able to lace up his own skates. He emerged from radiation treatments anemic and gaunt, but smiling. Hurt, but not complaining. Down, but never out.

Mario knows that his legacy is in good hands, because the most memorable moments of his career don’t reside in a highlight reel, a “Greatest Ever” List—they live on in our memories. Untarnished. Perfect.

It is not about him.

It is about you.

Tonight, the sun will set over the Igloo’s silver dome, and across the street, 200 students will stream through the gates of the House that Mario built. And somewhere down on Centre Avenue, a father will hoist his son up on his shoulders and carry him up the hill to the House that His Hero Built, and new memories will be made.


What a great day for hockey, indeed.

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Dig In: The Next Wave of Pizza in Pittsburgh

Dig In: The Next Wave of Pizza in Pittsburgh

Now is the time to be eating pizza in Pittsburgh. Pizza makers are crafting pies in a variety of styles from New York to Old World. We round up our nine favorite destinations.
Can Anthony Hamlet Fix Pittsburgh Public Schools?

Can Anthony Hamlet Fix Pittsburgh Public Schools?

The superintendent, and former NFL player, is using a new school of thought to change legacy problems.
5 Pittsburgh Craft Distilleries Earning a Place on the Shelf

5 Pittsburgh Craft Distilleries Earning a Place on the Shelf

Uncovering the hidden gems of western Pennsylvania’s craft spirit world.
Pittsburgh's Most Popular Employee is Furry and Four-Footed

Pittsburgh's Most Popular Employee is Furry and Four-Footed

River O'Malley may not be making any major policy decisions, but his presence in the Pittsburgh City-County Building as the city's official canine ambassador is a delight to those who do.
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags


Five Fun Facts about Pittsburgh Bridges

Five Fun Facts about Pittsburgh Bridges

With more than 440 bridges in the city to choose from, VisitPITTSBURGH shows off the most interesting bridges within the city in its new Official Visitors Guide.

Comments

WQED Event to Celebrate Mister Rogers Forever Stamp

WQED Event to Celebrate Mister Rogers Forever Stamp

USPS will dedicate a new forever stamp to Fred Rogers and celebrate with a party in March.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
First Look: Poulet Bleu in Lawrenceville

First Look: Poulet Bleu in Lawrenceville

PM dining critic Hal B. Klein takes a look at the new Richard DeShantz restaurant ... and he has the scoop on what's next from the energetic restaurateur.

Comments

Avenue B is Closing

Avenue B is Closing

The Shadyside restaurant ends its 8-plus year run in a few weeks.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Sweet Ideas: Our Favorites for Valentine's Day

Sweet Ideas: Our Favorites for Valentine's Day

Where to eat, where to go, what to buy –– some of our favorites to make your Valentine's celebration memorable.

Comments

5 Best Ways to Go Beyond Regular Recycling

5 Best Ways to Go Beyond Regular Recycling

Recycling your cans is great. Recycling your couch is better.

Comments


After Dark Hall of Fame: Stage AE

After Dark Hall of Fame: Stage AE

The North Shore concert hotspot is the latest inductee in the After Dark Hall of Fame.

Comments

Five Essential February Events in Pittsburgh

Five Essential February Events in Pittsburgh

Pajama cinema, laser-aided indie rock, Pittsburgh punks and more February activities.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
The Quest is No Less Recognizable Even if Team USA Is Not

The Quest is No Less Recognizable Even if Team USA Is Not

They’re still playing hockey at the Winter Olympics, but without NHL players. Which means the guys doing the playing are relative nobodies. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Comments

Steelers Headed in Wrong Direction on The Stairway to Seven

Steelers Headed in Wrong Direction on The Stairway to Seven

A year ago at this juncture, the Steelers could legitimately perceive the Patriots as the only team standing between them and yet another championship. Now, a lot more more than just one team is in the way.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Black Panther is Marvel's Best Film

Black Panther is Marvel's Best Film

Reviews of "Black Panther" and "Early Man," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments

At Last, We're Freed from Fifty Shades

At Last, We're Freed from Fifty Shades

Reviews of "Fifty Shades Freed" and "The Cloverfield Paradox," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Mothers Know Best for This Pittsburgh Couple

Mothers Know Best for This Pittsburgh Couple

For Cady Walter and Jared Heningin, happily ever after may never have happened if their mothers hadn’t acted as matchmakers.

Comments

Cookie Table Contest: And the Winner Is ...

Cookie Table Contest: And the Winner Is ...

We introduce the winner and the runners up for our biannual cookie table contest.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
HGTV Renews ‘Restored by the Fords’ Starring Pittsburgh Siblings

HGTV Renews ‘Restored by the Fords’ Starring Pittsburgh Siblings

The finale showcasing Leanne and Steve Ford airs Tuesday, and the duo already are looking for more local houses to restore for the show’s second season.

Comments

Great Mews: 68 Townhouses Underway for Lawrenceville

Great Mews: 68 Townhouses Underway for Lawrenceville

Located on the site of former Hanlon-Gregory Steel galvanizing plant, Mews on Butler should have its first townhomes ready for occupancy by fall.

Comments

Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags