If you know anything about me, you probably know how much of a Pittsburgh Penguins fan I am. I don’t exactly know how it happened, but when I was only a few years old, I became a Pens fan. I have pictures of myself at 5 or 6 years old with a Mario Lemieux t-shirt, which I still have actually. I loved watching Mario play, he skated so gracefully, he made so many opposition players simply look foolish, and goaltenders, they feared him. Mario Lemieux knew how to score goals and when I played hockey, I love to score goals. It’s no wonder he was my favourite player. I wore #67 because it was between him and Jagr (my 2nd favourite), and I dreamed of one day scoring a goal and seeing 66, 67, & 68 lined up together.
I can still remember getting the news that Mario was retiring for the first time, I think I was 14. I was in the basement of my parents house watching SportsDesk and I couldn’t believe it. How could Mario retire? He was so young, only 30 years old, younger than I am now. I cried. I couldn’t recall crying before then. I had never gotten the chance to see him play live, but there was still a little time. I saved up some money and bought a ticket to see the Penguins play in Buffalo, his last game close to home. I was so disappointed to get to the game and learn that not only was Lemieux not playing, neither was Jagr, and that was that. Mario, as one of the best players to ever play, skipped the waiting period and was immediately inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Growing up near Toronto, I didn’t know many other Penguins fans, but there was one. I didn’t know that when players were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, they held an autograph signing the day before, but Ryan did, and he and his dad were going to go wait in line to meet Lemieux and get an autograph. They invited me to tag along. We were supposed to only get one autograph from each person being inducted, and aside from Lemieux, there were Bryan Trottier, who won the Cup with the Pens, and Glen Sather, who had been in in the Penguins organization too when he was younger. I brought along a flag for Sather to sign, a 1991 Stanley Cup Finals puck for Trottier to sign, and I bought a right handed Koho stick for Lemieux to sign which I had purchased specifically for this as a left handed shooter. I also brought a jersey just in case.
We waited in that line for 6 hours, and there were probably hundreds of people behind us in line, maybe more as I couldn’t see the end of it. The signing was in the Great Hall (where the Cup is kept). There were about 20 people behind us when they shut the doors and didn’t allow any more people in. We had just made it. As we got up to the signing table, I went first, it was Sather, Trottier, and best for last, Lemieux. Ryan was taking his sweet time behind me, so after Mario signed my stick I noticed I had about 30 seconds, so I asked Mario if he could sign my jersey too, he said “of course”. I am so glad he did as years later, the signature would fade from the stick, however the jersey is now hanging above my desk in a frame with my favourite Lemieux picture (which I have replicated below).
I thought my Lemieux story would end there, but we Penguins fans got the biggest gift we could ask for when Mario announced his comeback. On December 27th, 2000, he again laced up the skates in the NHL. His well documented return came with a 3 point night a million smiles. Mario was back. The only player to ever retire with an over 2 point a game average, the man who had beaten cancer, the best player to ever play, the Magnificent One, was back, and it was awesome.
I wasn’t going to miss Mario playing again. I made many trips to Pittsburgh to see Lemieux and the Pens play, and I got to see him in Toronto a couple times as well. Each time I saw him he put up no less than 2 points. A game in Toronto that my brother took me to (he got his company tickets for the game), Mario scored on a slapshot from the top of the circle in front of us, and then later that same period, he banked one in off the back of Trevor Kidd’s leg, one of my favourite things to do as a player.
My favourite personal Lemieux story comes from March 10th 2001. My dad and I went down to Pittsburgh to see the game against Calgary on hat night. I was so excited to get a free Penguins hat. We sat in the corner, about 10 rows up, some of the best seats in the house before that damn mesh got put up. Mario scored once and I got a picture of him winding up to take the shot which was awesome, but cooler than that was him setting up 2 of Jagr’s 3 goals. Yes, a hat trick on hat night. Thousands of yellow hats rained down on the ice. Being so close to the glass, we had hats dropping on us left right and centre. I can recall throwing hats over the glass like a mad man, the supply seemed endless. But we didn’t throw our own hats.
After the game, we went into the gift shop and I bought a yellow street sign that said ‘Mario Lemieux Ave’. Outside we heard that Mario parked inside the building, unlike the other players who parked outdoors, and that if you waited in the right spot, and on the right night, he would stop and sign autographs. We found the right place on the right night.
Mario drove up and opened his window, I carefully moved the metal sign into the opening of his Mercedes window and had him sign it. I was wearing a Team Canada jersey at the time and he said “nice jersey”. I then responded to him with “you better be playing next year”, referring to the Salt Lake City Olympics. He smiled and said “we’ll see”. We all know how that turned out. I then forced my dad to get his hat signed, which he gave to me later.
Having Lemieux back was wonderful, and he created so many more highlights, and probably helped create a lot of Penguins fans. He was even fortunate enough to play a bit with Crosby when he came into the league.
His final season ended far different than his first retirement as he only played 26 games (probably because of the lockout the year before), and halted play without any big announcement. A lot of big name players played their last games that season, including Luc Robitaille, Brian Leetch, Brett Hull, and Steve Yzerman. It was the end of an era for guys my age. I was no longer a kid at this point, and this time I didn’t cry when Lemieux was done, I was just happy to have been lucky enough to have seen him play.
While he’s been gone from playing in the NHL for nearly a decade now, I will never forget so many of his incredible moments, from the Canada Cup and the Olympics, to the Stanley Cups and All Star appearances, he will always be, in my opinion, the greatest player to ever lace up the skates (especially since he wasn’t able to actually lace up his own skates for so many years). I could have this debate with people forever, but there’s no convincing me otherwise.
Will I ever get the chance to see Mario play again? I would love to be able to attend his fantasy camp and be able to take a pass from him, and give one back, because no matter how old I get, no matter how many years since his last game, how many Sidney Crosby’s we draft, he will always be my favourite player, and I will always be that little boy at heart, wanting nothing more than stand beside greatness.
Happy Birthday Mario!
Today I’ll be wearing my Laval Voisins Lemieux jersey, my 66 Lemieux foundation hat, and putting on my yellow Penguins Lemieux jersey when I play pickup hockey, to honour Mario’s 50th birthday. Let’s hope for 50 more!