Canadian hockey player Mario Lemieux (born 1965) was known for his speed and finesse, often compared to such greats as Wayne Gretzky and Guy Lafleur. After his retirement, Lemieux became one of the first players in professional sports to own the team for which he had played.
Lemieux was born on October 5, 1965, in Montreal, Canada, the youngest of three sons of Jean-Guy and Pierrette Lemieux. Growing up in Ville Emard, just outside of Montreal, Lemieux began playing hockey at the age of three. He was encouraged in this pursuit by his father, a construction worker, who packed snow in their front hallway so his sons could practice skating inside. Lemieux played hockey every day after school, and his abilities soon became evident. Jean-Guy Lemieux told Kevin Dupont of The New York Times, "At the age of six I knew he'd play professional. He was playing mite hockey then, with boys who were nine and ten years old and he was already the leader of the team. In every category, scoring and size, he was always bigger."
When he was eligible, Lemieux played junior hockey for Quebec's Laval Voisins in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Before Lemieux joined the team, it had finished last in the league. Lemieux led the team to two league championships, in 1983 and 1984, on his way to becoming the highest-scoring junior player of all time. Averaging four points a game, Lemieux broke numerous scoring records in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. In the 1983-84 season, Lemieux had 282 points, including 133 goals and 149 assists in 70 games. That year, he was voted top junior player in Canada. Though Lemieux was often a showman on the ice, he was shy off of it. Yet he used his burgeoning celebrity to start his own golf tournament, The Mario Lemieux Annual Celebrity Golf Tournament which benefited the Normand Leveille Foundation.
In the 1984 National Hockey League amateur entry draft, Lemieux was the first pick overall, chosen by the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was the first French Canadian to be so picked since Guy Lafleur in 1971. It was speculated at the time that the Pittsburgh team was deliberately the worst team in the league so it could have the first pick and draft Lemieux. He was immediately seen as the future of the club because of his passing abilities, speed, overall skills, and size (6 ′ 4 ″, 200 lbs.). Lemieux was given the largest contract ever offered to a rookie. It was worth $600,000 over two years, plus a $150,000 signing bonus and $150,000 option. Such a contract came with expectations. Lemieux was often compared to Wayne Gretzky, and wore number 66, which was Gretzky's number upside down.
As he had on his junior hockey team, Lemieux made an immediate impact on the Penguins. He scored a goal on his first shift of his first game. Throughout the whole of his rookie season, 1984-85, Lemieux scored a total of 43 goals and had 57 assists. This 100-point total was the third highest scored by a rookie in the history of the league. For his efforts, Lemieux won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. He also played in the All-Star Game and was named the game's Most Valuable Player (MVP). Many believed Lemieux saved the Penguins, financially as well as competitively, because the team might have left the city otherwise. Lemieux also played for Team Canada in World Cup Hockey competition, leading them to a second place finish.
Lemieux continued to improve, pushing himself to become a better player and leader. In the 1985-86 season, he finished second only to Gretzky in points. He was rewarded with a bigger contract, second only to Gretzky in size. It was worth $2.75 million over five years. Comparisons to Gretzky would continue throughout his career. In 1987, Lemieux again played for Team Canada in World Cup competition. This was regarded as an important step in his development as a player, for he played on the same line as Gretzky and learned much from him. Lemieux scored 11 goals in the tournament, including the game-winner in a game versus the Soviet Union, more than any other player.
Lemieux emerged from Gretzky's shadow during the 1988-89 season. Sensitive to accusations that he sometimes eased his intensity during games, Lemieux improved his work ethic. The results were immediate. He had the best scoring start in National Hockey League history, scoring 41 points in the first 12 games, and went on to score 50 goals in less than 50 games. In December 1988, he was named the Penguins' captain, a leadership position. At that season's All-Star Game, he eclipsed Gretzky, and was again named the game's MVP. On the season, Lemieux scored 85 goals and 186 total points—19 more than Gretzky-that gave him the League's scoring title. He also won two MVP awards: the Hart Trophy (voted by hockey writers) and the Lester Pearson Award (voted by fellow players). Under his leadership, the Penguins made the play-offs for the first time, although the New York Rangers eliminated them in four games. Still, Pittsburgh named him the city's man of the year in 1989.
Lemieux's triumph became temporarily derailed for much of 1990-91 due to injury. Though he began the 1989-90 season well through 58 games, he was injured in February 1990 with a herniated disk. He had to undergo back surgery in 1990, and later developed a disc space infection. Lemieux missed the first 50 games of the 1990-91, returning in February 1991. He scored two goals and four assists in his first game back, though he pulled a groin muscle in his fifth game. The Penguins had done well without him, and were on the verge of making the playoffs. Despite lingering back problems, Lemieux led the Penguins to its first Stanley Cup victory. In his 18 play-off games, Lemieux scored a point in each, and goals in 10. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the play-off MVP.
The dominance of Lemieux continued through the 1991-92 season when he scored 131 points in 64 games. Though he still had problems from a lingering shoulder injury and continuing back problems, Lemieux showed his drive and determination when he led the Penguins to their second Stanley Cup. Lemieux signed a new contract in the off season worth $42 million over seven years. He showed its worth by beginning the 1992-93 strong. He scored a goal in each of the first 12 games. In his first 40 games, Lemieux scored a total of 39 goals and 104 total points. But his life changed forever when he found a lump on his neck in January 1993.
Lemieux was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, cancer of the lymph nodes. Despite the prognosis, Lemieux hoped to return to the team that season, within ten weeks. He underwent a course of radiation treatment, and was back with the Penguins by March. He scored a goal and an assist in his first game back. The team then won 15 straight games. In April, Lemieux scored five goals in one game, in which the Penguins beat the New York Rangers, 10-5. Despite missing several weeks of the season, Lemieux won the League's scoring title with more than 157 points. Though the Penguins had the league's best record, they did not win the Stanley Cup. But Lemieux's cancer-survivor story gave him notoriety outside of hockey. As Jon Scher of Sports Illustrated wrote "Remarkably, the cancer has made Lemieux greater than the sum of his parts. After being viewed for years as a major figure in a minor sport, Lemieux now transcends hockey. He's being recognized as the world's dominant pro athlete."
Despite these expectations, Lemieux only played in 22 games over the next two seasons. He missed most of the 1993-94 campaign with a herniated muscle in his back. He took off the 1994-95 season to address the anemia that had developed because of his cancer treatment. Lemieux continued to play golf and work with a personal trainer. He founded the Mario Lemieux Foundation to raise money for cancer victims. Lemieux married long-time girlfriend, Nathalie Asselin, in this time period. Together they had four children, including daughters Lauren and Stephanie, and son, Austin.
In 1995, Lemieux returned to the Penguins, and planned on playing in only 60 games. He started the season rather slowly, only scoring four assists in his first game back. He soon regained form, and played in more than the 60 games he had planned. He only sat out 11 games, primarily to rest his back. For the whole season, Lemieux had 161 points, including 69 goals, and was named the League's MVP. Health problems continued to plague Lemieux, and he took himself off Team Canada for World Cup competition in 1996. Though Lemieux won his sixth scoring title in the 1996-97 season, he decided to retire while at the top of his game. His reasons were twofold. Though his back problems were part of it, Lemieux also had problems with the job done by on-ice officials. He had expressed such ideas as early as 1992, when he was fined for his public criticisms of officiating in the NHL.
Over the course of Lemieux's career, he averaged 2.01 points per game, a number bested only by Gretzky. Lemieux and Gretzky were head to head for many NHL scoring records, with Lemieux only leading in the category of percentage of goals per game. When Lemieux retired, he had 1494 total career points, including 613 goals. The Hockey Hall of Fame waived its normal waiting-period for Lemieux, and he was inducted in December 1997.
Though Lemieux's playing days were at an end, he was not through with professional hockey. When he retired, the Penguins owed him millions of dollars (about $30 to $40 million) in deferred compensation. The team suffered greatly without him, and there were rumors that the Penguins might be sold and moved to Portland, Oregon. When the Penguins were forced to declare bankruptcy, Lemieux was the team's biggest creditor. To save the team for a second time, Lemieux put together an ownership team. The court awarded Lemieux primary ownership in exchange for $29 million of what they owed him, just before the beginning of the 1999-2000 season. Whether one of hockey's greatest players would become a great owner had yet to be seen. As Lemieux told E.M. Swift of Sports Illustrated when he was drafted by the Penguins in 1984, "I'm the kind of guy who isn't very nervous, who takes life as it comes."
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