There wasn’t much to like about the Pittsburgh Penguins, much less love, when Mario Lemieux joined them in 1984. They were a 17-year-old franchise with a history that mirrored that of a 17-year-old kid: growing pains, some Terrible Twos, a period of petulance, followed by maddening apathy. Its parents wondered when it was going to quit being lazy and do something with its life. Once, the team was even given a 3-0 series lead in the playoffs and managed to fritter it away like an allowance.
Then along came Lemieux, and the Penguins were relevant again. They grew up, and married the Stanley Cup in 1991, at the age of 24. Pretty much on schedule. They had a second honeymoon with the Cup a year later.
Lemieux saved the Penguins franchise back then, and he saved it again, nine years ago, when there were whispers that the Pens, having cash flow problems and deep in debt, would relocate. But Mario Lemieux, cancer survivor and Mr. Pittsburgh Hockey, would have none of it. He wasn’t going to allow his franchise to move after already once bringing it back from the brink. So he did what most of us would do, if we had the dough: he bought the team.
Pittsburgh hockey — past, present and future; Lemieux is both of the first two; Crosby is both of the second two
Lemieux, into his first retirement as a player, became owner in the fall of 1999, only after insisting that all the creditors to which the Penguins owed cash, were paid in full. He also vowed that the team would never leave Pittsburgh.
Then he came back a couple years later and played some more, hanging on until halfway thru Sidney Crosby’s rookie season — retiring for good in January 2006. And by that time those Penguins-to-relocate winds had started to blow again. And again Lemieux rode to the rescue.
In 2003, the team was back to its pre-Lemieux ways of losing in bunches, and attendance was plummeting. It was said that the good folks of the midwest, in Kansas City, were ready to welcome the Penguins with open arms — should there be a breakup in Pittsburgh. But Lemieux again ensured that the Penguins would never leave. He acknowledged putting the team up for sale, but only with the proviso that it remain in Pennsylvania. There was no way Mario Lemieux would let his hockey team move to Missouri, to a town that had tried and failed once already as an NHL entity.
Should the Penguins somehow upset the Red Wings in the Finals, Lemieux will have pulled off quite a trifecta: winning the Cup as a player, buying the team, and then winning the Cup as its owner.
Mario Lemieux is why there’s hockey in Pittsburgh. It was true in 1984, and it’s even more so today.