Mario was super despite the obstacles
"Mario was one guy that could really motivate me to push my game to another level. I knew eventually he was going to chase me down and pull me back. That was inevitable," says Wayne Gretzky on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
He was born, like others of French heritage, with the surname Lemieux, which translates into "the best." Only Mario, though, was possessed with the talent to live up to the name.
When Lemieux retired in January 2006 because of an irregular heartbeat, he ranked second in goal-scoring percentage at .754 (Mike Bossy was first at .762) and in points per game at 1.88 (Gretzky was first at 1.92) for players with 400 games. A 10-time All-Star, Lemieux scored 690 goals and 1,033 assists for 1,723 points in 915 games. He saved a floundering franchise by leading the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups, winning MVP playoff honors both years.
But Lemieux's most remarkable feat is overcoming Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymph nodes that had taken the life of one of his cousins, and a debilitating back injury. Pro athletes have returned from serious injury before. They also have come back from life-threatening illnesses.
Can you name another athlete who has come back from both and performed better than anyone else in his or her sport?
"Notwithstanding Gretzky's abiding majesty, posterity will never forget that no athlete - not even the sainted Lou Gehrig - has ever before Lemieux been struck down by a deadly disease at the very moment when he was the best of his sport at the best he ever would be," wrote Frank Deford in Newsweek. "And since: Lemieux has achieved miraculously in remission, struggling, on the side, with a back injury so grievous that it has benched him after he merely laced up a skate. That is the stuff that answers people these days when they wonder where all our sports heroes have gone."
After sitting out the 1994-95 season because of the crippling pain in his back, coupled with strength-sapping anemia caused by radiation treatments, Lemieux won two more scoring titles. The Magnificent One did it knowing that little lump he found on his neck might not just end his career, but also his life.
"It's always in the back of your mind," Lemieux said. "Whether you like it or not, it's always going to be there."
In 1997, the reclusive Lemieux, at 31, walked away from the game, the goals and the glory -- on his terms. Not so much for health reasons, but because of his frustration with the sport's direction. In 1992, he had called the NHL a "garage league" and it hadn't gotten better since. With advancing age, he found it more difficult to avoid the holding and hooking, the clutching and grabbing that prevented him from performing with his accustomed skill. Winning scoring titles wasn't enough for him.
But as the years passed, Lemieux had a change of heart. And three years and eight months after "retiring," the man who had become the Penguins owner in September 1999 stepped back onto the ice. His return on Dec. 27, 2000 was a triumph as he scored a goal and had two assists.
He was born on Oct. 5, 1965 in Ville Emard, a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Montreal. His parents packed snow wall-to-wall in the front hallway of their house so Mario and his two brothers could practice skating indoors. He started skating when he was two or three, and played his first game at six. "By the time I was 12," he said, "I knew I had a lot of talent."
He also had a temper. "If Mario lost, it would be as if a hurricane went through the basement," said his father, Jean-Guy.
Mario dropped out of school at 16 with a 10th-grade education to concentrate on hockey. At 18, he scored a record 282 points, with 133 goals, for the Laval Voisins in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He solidified his legendary status by scoring 11 points in his final game.
As expected, he was the first selection in the 1984 NHL draft. On Oct. 11, 1984, in his first game, on his first shift, on his first shot, he notched his first goal. No. 66 (Gretzky's No. 99 turned upside down) went on to win Rookie of the Year, scoring 100 points, with 43 goals. Perhaps more significantly than turning the Penguins into a competitive team, he brought financial stability to the franchise, with attendance increasing by 46 percent, from 6,839 to 10,018 a game.
"Without Lemieux, they pack up the team and move to another city," said Edmonton Oilers boss Glen Sather.
In the 1987 Canada Cup, Lemieux took a pass from Gretzky and, with a flick of his strong wrists, scored the goal that broke a 5-5 tie against the Soviet Union and won the tournament for Canada. Lemieux, who notched a series-leading 11 goals (many on feeds from Gretzky), emerged from the series a decidedly different man. He had ripped up his reputation as someone who was lazy and lax when the going got tough and replaced it with the respect of the world's best players.
That season, Lemieux scored 168 points, breaking Gretzky's domination of the MVP and scoring titles. In 1988-89, Lemieux had his finest individual season, just missing entering Gretzky's private 200-point club; he finished with 199 points on career-highs of 85 goals and 114 assists.
Then the injuries started. A herniated disc caused him to miss 21 games in 1989-90, though he still scored 123 points in 59 games. Recuperation after summer back surgery for that disc forced him to miss 50 games in 1990-91, and he played just 26 games.
But he was back when the Penguins needed him most. In leading them to their first Stanley Cup, beating Minnesota in the finals, Super Mario scored 44 points in 23 postseason games.
In 1992, Lemieux signed a $42-million, seven-year contract. He was tearing up the league, with 104 points in 40 games, and there was the possibility he could break Gretzky's record of 215 points. But then Lemieux found a more difficult opponent than The Great One to overcome: a lump on his neck. Doctors removed the one-by-two-centimeter node in January 1993 and the biopsy revealed Hodgkin's disease. Lemieux was told it was in an early, non-life threatening stage.
To combat the disease, he underwent radiation therapy, and he was sidelined for two months. On the day of his final treatment, he played that night in Philadelphia, and scored a goal and an assist. A week after his return, he led the Penguins on an NHL-record 17-game winning streak. Despite playing only 60 games, he won his fourth Art Ross Trophy with 160 points.
He missed three-quarters of the 1993-94 season because of complications following surgery to repair a herniated muscle in his back. Then he sat out the next season. But he came back strong, scoring 161 points with 69 goals in 1995-96, and recording 122 points in 1996-97.
When Lemieux stopped playing in 1997 he was the No. 6 all-time scorer with 1,494 points. The Hall of Fame bypassed the mandatory three-year waiting period and elected him into the shrine in September 1997.
In 1999, Lemieux led a group of investors who took the Penguins out of bankruptcy. He became the team's president and ceo. But in 2000, he decided that he could help the franchise even more on the ice.
Returning that December, he scored 76 points, with 35 goals, in just 43 games. In 2001-2002, a hip injury limited Lemieux to only 24 games and six goals. His highlight in 2002 was being captain of the Canadian team that won its first Olympic gold medal in 50 years.
In 2002-2003, Lemieux scored 91 points, including 28 goals, in 67 games. But he broke down again the following season. He scored one goal in 10 games before chronic tendinitis in his hip caused him to miss the rest of the season. Two months of rest and rehabilitation didn't heal the injury, so Lemieux underwent arthroscopic surgery in January 2004.
He gave the game one more shot, returning for the 2005-06 season. (A lockout had canceled the previous campaign.) But after missing 21 of 22 games because of his heart ailment, Lemieux -- at 40 -- retired again. This time for good.
When asked about Lemieux, former Penguins owner Howard Baldwin once said, "Remember him for his gifts, his grace and beauty on the ice. And most of all, remember his courage."