The Super Comeback of Mario Lemieux

by Shaun Fawcett

Webmaster's note:
The reason for including the article below on this website is because it is a good practical example of how to research and write an article, even when it is impossible to interview the subject of the article.

(This Mario Lemieux article was written for MENZ Magazine in late February 2001. Unfortunately, Mario was not available for an interview (he turned down Jay Leno too!), so the article is based entirely on the author's research. Sources included previous articles, various Web sites (e.g. NHL, Pittsburgh Penguins, fansites), plus a couple of books written about Mario a few years ago. The article presented here is the complete "uncut" version, as submitted to the magazine, and is not edited-down to make room for ads, photos, and/or other articles. MENZ was a Montreal-based lifestyle magazine for men. That particular article was published in the Sping 2001 Edition. MENZ stopped publishing a couple of years later.

The Super Comeback of Mario Lemieux

Coming Back On the Ice and In the Boardroom...

Mario Lemieux's life as a professional hockey player has been all about comebacks. Maybe that's why we shouldn't have been too surprised or shocked when, in early December 2000 he announced at a press conference that he planned to once again, return to the game that he loves and once dominated.

No doubt, Lemieux's most faithful followers weren't at all surprised when, on December 27, 2000, "Mario Le Magnifique" skated out onto the ice at the Pittsburgh Igloo to the raucous standing ovation of a sell-out crowd of adoring and ecstatic Penguins fans, and then proceeded to pick up from exactly where he had left off some 3 ½ years earlier.

On that auspicious debut return, he gained his first point only 33 seconds into the opening frame, assisting on a Jaromir Jagr goal. Then, midway through the second stanza he scored his first goal of the season, and a few minutes later, added another assist, rounding out his opening night total at three points. Not too bad for someone who had supposedly "retired" from the game in 1997.

For longtime followers of the game, this almost certainly brought back memories of Lemieux's original opening night in the NHL, on Oct. 11, 1984 when he stole the puck from another future hockey legend, Ray Bourke, and scored what was his first goal, on his first shift, of his very first NHL game.

Following In Guy Lafleur's Footsteps
Returning to the game like he is now, Lemieux is following the example set by another former NHL superstar, and his boyhood hockey hero, Guy Lafleur of the Montreal Canadiens. Lafleur retired from the Canadiens at the end of the 1984-85 season and then, after three seasons off, came back with the New York Rangers for one year, and played out his career with the Quebec Nordiques over two final seasons.

Lemieux was a relatively young 31-years-old when he left the game at the end of the 1996-97 season. Although he could have continued on, he had been playing in pain most of his career, with a chronically aching back that had already required two surgeries. At the time, he said that his back needed an extended rest and he also wanted to spend more time with his wife Nathalie and his four young children.

From a hockey standpoint, Lemieux really had nothing left to prove when he unlaced his skates for that last time on April 26, 1997 after scoring a goal and an assist in a losing cause, as Pittsburgh was eliminated from the playoffs by Philadelphia in five games.

A Super-Elite Performer
By that time, Mario Lemieux had already proven himself as one of a handful of super-elite players who have skated at a higher level than all others in the history of professional hockey. After only 13 seasons he was the ninth leading scorer in NHL history, with 613 career goals, and he was also the tenth all-time NHL points leader with 1,494.

These achievements are considerably understated when one realizes that, during those 13 seasons, he actually played only 745 regular season games, the equivalent of about 9 full seasons.

Lemieux's chronic back problems, coupled with his 1993 off-ice battle with Hodgkins disease, had made it so that it was often a struggle for him just to be able to show up to play during much of his professional career. As the Penguin's General Manager Craig Patrick recently stated, "I remember games my first year in Pittsburgh when Mario was chasing Wayne Gretzky for the consecutive points streak and his back was so bad he had to grab his pant leg to pull his leg over the boards onto the ice."

Most Productive Player In NHL History
When he left the game in 1997, Lemieux held or shared a number of NHL records including: the most short-handed goals in one season (13), and the most goals scored in one period (4). Two of his records in particular are telling reflections as to what his career as a prolific goal scorer and play maker was all about - he has the highest career points-per-game average (2.005), and the highest career goals-per-game average (.823) of any player in NHL history.

Although many hockey experts like to debate the relative significance of some of his other achievements, compared with Gretzky for example, based on these two numbers alone, there can be no doubt that Mario Lemieux was the most "productive" offensive player who ever skated in the NHL. In addition to his individual scoring achievements, he also led his beloved Pittsburgh Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1990-91 and 1991-92.

So, given all this, what could possibly bring Mario Lemieux back to play the game of hockey as a professional? Well, just like Lemieux is, it's simple, but it's also complicated.

For the Love of the Game
First, there's the love of the game. Legend has it that from the very first time he was laced into a pair of skates as a four-year old in his hometown of Ville-Émard, a Montreal suburb, it was clear that young Mario had "the gift" - a definite child prodigy had appeared. As an Atom player he routinely scored 4, 5 and 6 goals a game.

By the time he was a teenager he had broken just about every scoring record available on his way up through the ranks. In his final junior year with the Voisins de Laval, of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he scored 133 goals and 282 points in a 70 game season. It's no wonder he was noticed by NHL scouts early on, and later became the first overall pick in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft. The kid was a natural. Hockey was, and remains, in his blood.

Simply put, after over three years off, Mario was missing the game that he knew he could still play at a high level. As he said himself after his Dec. 27, 2000 return debut, "It was great to be back in my first game and score a goal in this building and have the reaction of the crowd … it was fantastic, a dream come true."

For the Love of the Penguins
Then there's the future of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not only is Mario Lemieux the greatest player in the history of the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise, he is now also the majority owner of that team. Because of this, there are numerous reasons why Mario might want to come back to make a few statements, and set a leadership example for his own team, for other players, and for his fellow NHL owners.

From a team perspective, Lemieux's motivations are pretty clear. Come back, get the team all fired-up, motivate them to make the playoffs, and then take a run at the Stanley Cup. With Lemieux in the line-up, the Penguins look like a serious Cup contender this year. His return has of course already had a major effect on ticket sales in Pittsburgh, with home games selling out again.

In fact, when rumors were circulated about his likely return, the Penguins sold over $400,000 worth of tickets in one day. Essentially, every time Lemieux steps onto the ice, he is adding value to his own investment as a team owner. No doubt, his minority shareholders are very pleased about this whole situation. Also, it certainly won't hurt the franchise as they lobby local governments for public funding for a new hockey arena in Pittsburgh to replace the aging Igloo.

A Double-Barreled Agenda
As an owner, Lemieux has a double-barreled agenda in pulling on the skates again. Number one is to make a statement to the other players in the league about the escalating salary levels. For example, Lemieux has made a point of being paid as a player this year at the average NHL player's salary of USD$1.4 million per season, plus performance bonuses.

Meanwhile, a mere 35 games into this return, he had already scored 31 goals and 30 assists for 61 points and was on track to end the season among the top five point-getters in the league. This, after missing the first 36 games of the season! What a way to put peer pressure on some of his overpaid playing colleagues and at the same time, send a message to the other owners that limits have to be set, even for the top players.

In fact, Lemieux is now playing alongside teammates (i.e. his employees) who are earning significantly more than him (e.g. Jaromir Jagr USD$8 million per year). There can be no doubt that he is making a clear statement here to both players and owners in the NHL, that salaries are getting out of hand and a salary cap needs to be on the agenda for discussion by both the NHL Board of Governors, and the NHL Players Association.

A Former Million-Dollar Holdout
This recent sensitivity to player's salaries is somewhat ironic in Lemieux's case. Back in June 1984 at the NHL entry draft session, Mario publicly refused to don the sweater of the Pittsburgh Penguins who had just made him their first pick. The reason? Young Mario was holding out to be the first top draft pick to be paid $1 million, and he and the Penguins had not been able to reach an agreement before draft day.

In the end, both sides eventually reached a mutually face-saving deal whereby Mario would receive a base salary of some $760,000 per year with generous performance bonuses that would pretty much put him over the $1 million level just for showing up.

A Windfall For the NHL
Lemieux's motives for coming back go beyond the Pittsburgh city limits. In fact, they extend to the entire National Hockey League. Through his return, Lemieux has single-handedly put the NHL back on the front pages of sports sections, particularly in the U.S. where the only headline hockey news since Gretzky retired in 1999 has involved one player coming close to deliberately decapitating another with his stick.

In spite of some very talented players in the NHL, hockey hasn't had a high-profile "superstar" since "The Great One" hung up his skates at the end of the 1998-99 season. Clearly, Lemieux's "second coming" was a needed shot in the arm for a game that was looking a tad sickly, and you can bet that the owners throughout the league are counting those extra ticket revenues with glee, especially when "La Merveille" drops by their home rinks for a sold-out visit.

The Comeback King
As for comebacks, Lemieux has made more than his share of them, both on and off the ice. Without wanting to belittle his puck-handling talents, it is some of his off-ice comebacks that have been among his most dramatic, and remarkable.

In the 1989-90 season, Lemieux managed to score 123 points (45, 78) and finish fourth in league scoring despite missing 21 games because of his herniated back. In the off-season he underwent surgery to repair this problem, and then proceeded to miss 50 games of the following season because he had contracted a rare bone disease as a result of a surgery-related infection.

Nevertheless, Lemieux then came back near the end of the season to lead the Penguins to the 1990-91 Stanley Cup, scoring 44 playoff points (16, 28) and being named the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

The following season he won his third straight league scoring title with 131 points (44, 87). Then in game 2 of the Patrick Division finals he suffered a broken hand after being slashed by Adam Graves of the New York Rangers. Most players would have retired to the golf course for the summer at this point, but not Lemieux.

After missing only five playoff games he came back to inspire his teammates to win their second straight Stanley Cup. In spite of his five-game interlude, Lemieux still tallied a total of 34 playoff points (16, 18), and was once again named Most Valuable Player and awarded the Smythe Trophy.

The Hurting Doesn't Stop
Then, in a seeming case of insult being added to injury, in January 1993 Lemieux was diagnosed with a Nodular Lymphocytic form of Hodgkin's Disease. In order to save his strength, he didn't play hockey for a month while receiving radiation treatments for this rare form of cancer.

Amazingly, he then returned to play a game on the night of his final day of treatments. Nevertheless, although he only played 60 games that year, he still managed to win his fourth scoring title with 160 points (69, 91), and was awarded the Hart Trophy for the second time as the league's MVP.

Continuing to be plagued by back problems, Lemieux underwent his second back operation in three years in the summer of 1993. This caused him to miss a total of 58 games of the 1993-94 season, while recovering from the surgery and suffering recurring bouts of back pain. This situation, coupled with chronic fatigue caused by his earlier radiation treatments, led to him sitting-out the entire 1994-95 season to rest and contemplate his future.

He Never Lost The Touch
Then, in June 1995 he announced that he was feeling better and would make yet another comeback. Just to show everyone that he hadn't missed a step during his year off, he went out and scored 161 points (69, 92) during the 1995-96 season, and won the league scoring title for the fifth time in his career. He was also awarded the Hart MVP Trophy for the third time.

Lemieux continued this superior level of play throughout the 1996-97 season, winning his sixth scoring title with 122 points (50, 72) while recording his 10th career 100-point season. On Feb. 4, 1997 he scored his 600th goal in his 719th NHL game, to become the second-fastest to ever achieve that feat, just a shade behind Wayne Gretzky, who had done it in 718 games.

Nothing Left To Prove
Saying that he had nothing left to prove and that he wanted to spend more time with his family, Lemieux announced his supposed retirement from hockey in early April 1997 at the relatively tender age of 31. In his final playoff game he said goodbye to his many fans by scoring a goal and an assist as the Pens bowed out of the playoffs to the Philadelphia Flyers. By November of that year he had already been named to The Hockey Hall of Fame.

Interestingly, perhaps Lemieux's most impressive comeback didn't take place on the ice or in a hospital room, but behind a boardroom desk after he quit active hockey. This time he managed to bring back to life his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Saving The Day In The Boardroom
In the late 90's when Lemieux retired, the Penguins franchise was in serious financial trouble. It was bleeding badly, going deeper into debt, and was on the verge of bankruptcy. In fact, its biggest creditor was Mario Lemieux, who was owed in excess of USD$26 million in deferred salary payments.

At that point, Lemieux decided to stage yet another comeback. In a matter of a few months he put together a business restructuring plan and assembled a team of new investors who pooled their resources with his $26 million in equity. Collectively, the group saved the team from the jaws of U.S. Bankruptcy Court at the very last minute, just before training camp opened in September 1999.

This impressive business achievement marked another near-miraculous comeback for Lemieux. As NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman put it simply, "No one could have done it but Mario Lemieux."

Leading The Penguins To The Next Level
As majority owner, the then 33-year-old Lemieux took over as Chairman of the Board, Chief Executive Officer and President of the Penguins. He immediately directed a dramatic turnaround effort that saw the team break even on an operating basis, just a year after it had lost $13 million.

He has instituted such innovations as the Mario Lemieux Family Section Plan that allows an adult to buy a ticket for $25 and then purchase up to 6 tickets for kids at $10 a piece. As he explained, "The idea is to make Pittsburgh Penguins hockey affordable and accessible to as many people as possible, especially families with young children."

After making multiple comebacks on the rink and in his personal life, followed by stick-handling a renaissance in the Pittsburgh Penguins front office, Mario Lemieux has once again returned to the ice to see what kind of a comeback he can spark there. And why not? As he has already demonstrated many times over, if anyone can lead the Pens to a Stanley Cup appearance this year, it is definitely Super Mario Lemieux.

Mario Lemieux Trivia:

Born: October 5, 1965, Montreal.

Father is Jean-Guy, mother is Pierrette.

Has two older brothers, Alain and Richard. Alain was also gifted in hockey but didn't pursue it.

Married high school sweetheart, Nathalie Asselin, June 26, 1993, Montreal.

Loves golf and is a low-handicap player. Golf professional was his second career choice.

He is 6' 2" tall and his playing weight is about 195 lbs.

His number "66" was chosen for him because it is the flip-side of Gretzky's "99".

In 19 meetings between Lemieux and Gretzky teams, Gretzky had 46 total points, Lemieux had 28.

He refused to participate in the 1991 Canada Cup Tournament for fear of hurting his back.

In his earlier years he was often accused of being lazy.

He was a smoker throughout most of his career.

At one point he was labeled "the anti-Gretzky" in the sense of the "anti-Christ" by Gretzky supporters.

Ken Dryden once said that Lemieux was so good, he was the only player capable of making his opponents "look ridiculous."

In 1992, Lemieux publicly referred to the NHL as a "garage league" because of some of the dirty play going on. He was fined $1,000 for that and then got into an ongoing feud with then NHL Commissioner John Zeigler, over violence and "cheap shots" in the NHL.

New Year's Eve, 1988: In a game against the New Jersey Devils, Mario Lemieux turned in the greatest individual scoring performance in the history of hockey. He scored five goals five different ways! He scored an even-strength goal, a power play goal, a short-handed goal, a penalty shot goal, and an empty net goal. Those are the five types of goals a player can score in hockey, and Lemieux did them all in one game. No one had ever done this before (NHL has been around since 1917), and no one has done it since.

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