Pittsburgher of the Year: Mario Lemieux

Mario Lemieux saved hockey in Pittsburgh — twice. Now his biggest goal is saving lives.




Photo © 2012 Pittsburgh Penguins/Joe Sargent

 


 

Mario Lemieux is wearing a hard hat. It’s a late autumn morning, and outside the enormous glass window overlooking Pittsburgh’s East End, the sun is wading lazily in a rolling ocean of red-orange foliage. Lemieux doesn’t give the dramatic scene a second look. Inside, he’s surrounded by possibility — his own curious sandbox. The new Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers at UPMC’s Hillman Cancer Center is still a construction zone. Exposed I-beams hang above Lemieux’s head, electrical wires cover the floor like spilled spaghetti, and the fellow manning a circular saw in the corner of the room is conducting an impromptu fireworks show with sparks and sawdust.

In its own Pittsburgh way, it’s a more beautiful scene than the postcard outside the window. In order to understand why Lemieux is here, at 47, standing in sawdust instead of on a private beach in Tahiti, you need to understand the man in his true element: the golf course. A few years back, he had sunk a hole-in-one on the eighth green at Secession Golf Club in South Carolina. After the revelry died down and the group teed off at the next hole, Lemieux’s close friend Tom Grealish asked where he’d put the ball. Lemieux shrugged and pointed to the fairway. “I just hit it,” he said.

“Anyone else would have run off the eighth green and had the ball framed,” Grealish says. “Mario hit it off the No. 9 tee.”
 


Lemieux and Foundation board members take in the view on the outdoor roofdeck at the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers. Photo by Martha Rial.
 


Back at the center, it’s not exactly the social event of the season. Lemieux doesn’t do those. There are no TV cameras, keynote speakers, corporate sponsors or Botox-infused socialites. It’s just Lemieux, his wife, Nathalie, the Mario Lemieux Foundation’s board of directors and the project’s excitable lead architect, David Wells of Radelet McCarthy Polletta, whose guided tour of the state-of-the-art facility borders on sermon. Wells fills in all the gaps — that empty wall, for instance, will house a giant 70-inch Sky Factory ultra-high-def display projecting soothing nature images, like a breezy beach, to comfort patients recovering from chemotherapy sessions.

The idea of the center being a place for emotional, and not just physical, healing was close to Lemieux’s heart. When he was shockingly diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1993 at age 28, fear became Lemieux’s greatest adversary. While walking through the near-finished patient rooms at the center, the memories come flooding back.

“Finding out you have cancer,” Lemieux begins to say, then trails off. “Fear is a big part of it. I reflect back on the times when I was getting treatments every day. It’s not an easy thing, when you have cancer, to get up in the morning knowing that you’re facing a radiation treatment. So we wanted this space to be as comfortable as possible.”

The foundation, which was established shortly after Lemieux received his Hodgkin’s diagnosis, donated $3 million for the center’s creation. Set to open this month, the facility is expected to treat more than 25,000 patients for leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma and other blood cancers annually. But it’s the children who always seem to be at the forefront for Lemieux.

“When you talk to kids who are very young and very sick — that’s when it touches you the most,” says Lemieux, who routinely calls young cancer patients on the phone to offer them encouragement, sometimes with surprising results. “The kids who are 5 and 6 years old, they haven’t seen me play. So I’ve taken a backseat to our two superstars, Crosby and Malkin, now in that respect.”

Lemieux flashes a big grin.

“Hopefully their parents have told them about me.”  
 


A child plays with Wally the Therapy Dog at The Children's Home of Pittsburgh & Lemieux Family Center

 

When those parents undoubtedly do recount stories of Le Magnifique, young cancer patients certainly have a hero they can relate to. Lemieux had been on a historic goal-scoring pace in 1993 and was coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup championships when he started to notice something peculiar while he was shaving. A lump in his throat that he’d ignored for months had grown to the point that he started catching it with his razor. Upon telling his doctor, the lump was immediately removed and sent for testing. A few days later, Lemieux received the toughest news of his life. Cancer.

“The first few weeks after the diagnosis,” Lemieux says, “boy, those were tough times. To try to stay positive and think about the future and not dwell in the present, that can be a really hard thing to do.”

Every day for six weeks, Lemieux would lie completely still on a table and absorb energy-draining radiation treatments. The routine was brutal.

“Those were the mullet days, so it was hard to tell, but Mario had lost some of his hair, and he had radiation burns on the back of his neck,” remembers Grealish. The radiation eventually destroyed his ability to taste food. Once, while out to dinner with Grealish, Lemieux asked the waiter for pepper on his steak capriccio. When Lemieux remembered he couldn’t taste anything at all, he just chuckled.

For hours upon hours, all Lemieux could do was gaze up at the ceiling — that big white slate of nothingness that projects hopes and fears more vividly than any television ever could. He would stare up into the void and think about one thing: his return.

“My last radiation treatment was at 8 in the morning,” he remembers. “There was no way I wasn’t going to play that night. After sitting on my butt for six weeks, I was on a plane to Philadelphia that afternoon for our game. That feeling of sitting in the locker room and lacing up my skates again …”

Lemieux trails off. He’s somewhere else, perhaps remembering the standing ovation he received from the crowd at the Philadelphia Spectrum, the very fans that even booed Santa Claus.

 


Photo © 2012 Pittsburgh Penguins/Joe Sargent
 


 

Ceilings have come to define Lemieux’s life. He was staring at one when the ping-pong balls were drawn to determine who would get the first pick in the 2005 NHL Draft. Lemieux had famously saved the franchise from bankruptcy by taking over ownership just years before, but the team was still struggling, both financially and in the standings, in the league’s oldest arena. The Penguins had just a 6.25 percent chance to land once-in-a-lifetime prospect Sidney Crosby in the lottery, so Lemieux was out doing his other job — being a dad.

“I was at the doctor’s office with two of our daughters,” Lemieux remembers. “Their appointment was at 4 p.m., the same time as the drawing, and there wasn’t a TV in the reception room. At 4:01, my phone started ringing, and it never stopped ringing."

Lemieux looks at the ground and shakes his head, almost in disbelief. "I think it’s still ringing," he laughs.

In Crosby, Lemieux didn’t just find a franchise savior, but also a kindred spirit. The two are both intensely private and family-oriented, and, above all, obsessive hockey nerds. Immediately, Lemieux offered Crosby a bedroom in his guesthouse.

“Within a week or so, I knew I wanted Sid to come live with us,” Lemieux says. “At 18, he needed some guidance, and it was a perfect setup with our kids being young. My son, Austin, had a buddy to play street hockey with right away.”

Even after following in his landlord’s footsteps with his own league MVP, scoring title and Stanley Cup, Crosby continues to be part of the family.

“I didn’t figure he’d still be with us eight years later,” Lemieux chuckles. “But no, seriously, it has been great having him around. The kids love him.”

It’s not hard to see why Lemieux saw a lot of himself in the young Crosby. Both were deemed saviors of cities they hardly knew anything about before they could even order a beer.

“I remember sitting in Mario’s living room in Quebec before he was drafted back in ’84,” says Tom McMillan, the Penguins’ vice president of communications who, at the time, was on assignment as a reporter. “The first thing Mario said after hugging his family was, ‘Pittsburgh … is that a nice city?’”

Nearly three decades later, Lemieux has not only saved hockey in Pittsburgh, but he’s changed the landscape of the city itself. His long, torturous campaign to get a new arena for the Penguins brought Super Mario face-to-face with his Kryptonite. Something even more daunting than a career derailed by cancer, debilitating back spasms and a heart condition: shmoozing.

“There were a lot of meetings with politicians,” he says, grimacing like he’s just taken a slapshot to the shin. “We were almost begging at times, which I’m not very good at doing. After eight years of hard work, we finally got the new facility.”
 


Sources at the Penguins say they knew Lemieux wouldn't initially agree to have a statue of himself outside CONSOL, so they commissioned it before telling him the news. Now, he loves it.

 

If Lemieux’s ownership group had failed, would the Penguins really have had to move to another market? “Absolutely,” Lemieux says. “We could not possibly survive with the old Mellon Arena. But this city needed a new facility not just for the Penguins, but for concerts and new events as well.”

A short time ago, Pittsburgh was fly-over country for the music industry. Today, CONSOL Energy Center hosts everyone from Carrie Underwood to Jay-Z. Lemieux is proud of the arena he reluctantly crusaded for, but as always, he quickly shifts the attention away from himself.

“The game-changer was when our ping-pong ball came up,” he says, “and Sid was a Penguin.”

The ongoing (and very complicated) NHL lockout is currently keeping Crosby and the Penguins off the ice, a subject that Lemieux is legally not able to discuss. For now, the foundation helps him pass the hours.

With the construction of his new project buzzing around him, Lemieux finally looks outside the window and down on a city that’s a lot different than the one he arrived in at age 19, speaking only a few words of English. He has just finished construction on a new Swiss-style mansion in his native Quebec, but he’s clear about where his heart is.  

“I love this city,” he says. “I love the people here. This has always been my home, and I intend to live here for the rest of my life.”

 


Photo © 2012 Pittsburgh Penguins/Joe Sargent
 


 

The night before Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals — their most important game since Lemieux took over as owner — Lemieux was once again staring up at the ceiling. As he lay in bed in his Detroit hotel room, Lemieux thought about what he could say to his young team, which was up against the much more experienced Detroit Red Wings.

A few nights prior, the Penguins were put on the brink of elimination after being decimated 5-0 in Detroit. Lemieux made a rare visit to the locker room after the game and was so uncharacteristically fired up that onlookers joked he was going to come out of retirement for a third time. On his way back out of the locker room, Lemieux turned to a Penguins official, still buzzing. “I want that big screen up,” he said, referring to the giant projection screen that the NHL had banned the Penguins from erecting outside Mellon Arena due to archaic broadcast rules. “I don’t care what the league says.”

On the team bus back to the airport, general manager Ray Shero sent Lemieux a text message, thanking him for coming to the locker room. “A lot of owners only come around when things are going well,” the message said. “You showed up at our lowest moment, and it meant a lot to the players.”

Minutes later, Shero’s phone lit up in the darkness. It was Lemieux. His message said, “See you Monday. We are a family, in this together. We don’t need anyone who’s only with us win or tie. Let’s forget about tonight. We will win Tuesday and win the Cup Friday.”

At the time, the message seemed ludicrously optimistic. The Penguins looked overmatched.

“I remember printing out that message and taking it home and thinking, We’re probably not going to win, but just in case, I’m going to save this,” McMillan says.

The Penguins won Game 6 at home, forcing a deciding Game 7 back in Detroit. But the day before the game, the team was visibly nervous. Lemieux racked his brain for a way that he could motivate the team in his own way. A rah-rah speech was out of the question.

On the eve of the game, he fired off another text message to a small group of the Penguins coaches and staff who were gathered at a Detroit bar.

“The staff was sitting around having a few beers before going to dinner, and my phone goes off and it’s Mario,” McMillan says. “He asked what we thought about a message he wanted to post in the locker room for the players.”

The first draft was a bit flat: “Something inspirational,” Mario texted, “Along the lines of, ‘This is the chance of a lifetime to realize your childhood dreams and win the Stanley Cup.’”

The Penguins staff pensively nursed their Coors Lights and tried to talk themselves into it.

Something was missing.

Then, a few minutes later, Lemieux reached down somewhere deep inside, maybe down the rabbit hole of a radiation machine, and found the truth. At that moment, the young Penguins weren’t thinking about their dreams. They were thinking about fear. McMillan’s phone vibrated on the table. When he read the message, he got goosebumps.

“Play without fear, and you will be successful,” Lemieux added. “See you at center ice.”

“A lot of owners could send a text,” McMillan says. “Only Mario Lemieux could send that text.”

“I’m not a novelist,” Lemieux’s final text read. “But I speak from the heart.”

At 7 a.m., the phone of every Penguins player vibrated with a personal message from Lemieux. The next night, the Stanley Cup was once again in its rightful place. At the bottom of the Lemieux family pool.

“The Cup gets pretty heavy when it sinks down there,” Lemieux says, grinning big.

This time in a suit instead of a hockey sweater, Lemieux had once again defeated his greatest and oldest foe. Not Mark Messier, Ray Bourque or Wayne Gretzky. But fear itself.
 


 

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