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 player—anyone, even a goon—to 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.