18 years ago yesterday, Mario Lemieux made his triumphant return to the ice after a four year battle with Hodgkins-Lymphoma. Mario had already secured his place as the greatest Penguin of all time, and a sure fire Hall of Famer. But beating cancer and returning to the ice was the next feat for The Magnificent One.
The night began with Lemiuex’s iconic #66 jersey being lowered from the rafters (it had since been retired), a clear message that Super Mario was back and ready to take the Civic Arena by storm. Mario did just that, because of course he did. Lemieux took the opening face off, returning at center, as if he hadn’t missed a beat. On his first shift(!!!!) back, he found Jaromir Jagr for a slightly janky looking goal, and Le Magnifique was in the point column after just thirty seconds of game time. But it wasn’t until the second period, when we found out that, “Mario is back!”
Mario Lemieux, all things considered, is one of the most important athletes for a given city that has ever lived. Don’t believe me? Here’s a list of things that this man accomplished, in and for the city of Pittsburgh:
1. Joined the worst team in the NHL, and captained them to back-to-back Stanley Cups just seven years later.
2. Beat cancer TWICE, coming out of retirement on both occasions.
3. Being faced with possible relocation, Lemieux literally BOUGHT THE TEAM becoming a owner/player, with the intention of keeping the team in the ‘Burgh.
4. Drafted an 18 year old Sidney Crosby out of high school and had Crosby live in his home for a year.
5. Became second all-time in points per game, behind Wayne Gretzky – a man who played in a largely inflated offensive era, with much better supporting casts than Lemieux had (just saying).
6. Won 3 more Stanley Cups as the Penguins owner, including another back-to-back in 2016 and 2017.
If you’re keeping track at home, Lemieux is one of the greatest hockey players of all time. He was most of the reason they won their first two Cups. He is all of the reason the Penguins are still in Pittsburgh. He drafted Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and others, ensuring the Penguins success would reboot in the past decade. That, my friends, it did. Never forget that magical night 20 years ago, when Super Mario dared us to dream bigger than we ever thought possible.
Thank you, #66.