Pittsburgher of the Year: Mario Lemieux
Mario Lemieux saved hockey in Pittsburgh — twice. Now his biggest goal is saving lives.
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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.”
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