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
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.