I know this is supposed to be a blog about dating and love. But it’s also a blog about my life, and aside from my dad, my ex, and my brother, there is only one other man who has had a significant influence in my life, and that is Mario Lemieux.
Does that sound weird to you? You must not be a sports fan, and you definitely are not from Pittsburgh.
Today, the Pittsburgh Penguins unveiled a statue in his honor outside the arena that will forever be part of his legacy. A statue is a minor monument to everything he has contributed to my hometown: saving our hockey team three separate times, scoring goal after goal that took our breath away, bringing the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh twice as a player and once as an owner, and leading efforts to raise millions of dollars to support neo-natal and cancer research in Pittsburgh.
Athletic stars come and go. It’s rare that a player spends his entire career with one team – even Peyton Manning is expendable today. But Monsieur Lemieux not only spent all of his playing days with one team, he then bought that team, turned it around, and has stayed in the city that adopted him as one of their own. You do not see that level of loyalty and commitment and class anywhere else in sports. No other athlete has meant more to a team or a city than Mario Lemieux has meant to Pittsburgh.
In French, le mieux means the best. When my ninth grade French teacher wrote the words on the blackboard, I gasped when I realized that the best player I’d had the privilege of ever watching was literally named the best.
The Mario moments are too many to list in an all-encompassing list. But this is my blog, and I want to recognize a few of my favorites:
- Game 6, 2001 Playoffs, against the Buffalo Sabres: This goal won’t make any of his top 10 lists. It wouldn’t make a top 25 list. But it’s a personal favorite, because I was in college, and I had many friends from Buffalo. The Sabres had won game 5 and had the chance to eliminate the Pens in game 6. With less than a minute left, Mario tied the game from right in front of the goal, and the Pens won games 6 and 7 in OT.
- Game 2, 1991 Stanley Cup Finals, against the Minnesota North Stars: If you ask anyone to describe a Mario Lemieux goal, this is the one they’ll describe. In May of 1991, I was nine years old, and I thought this was normal hockey, and that every team had a player who could do this, and that my team would win the Stanley Cup every year. It’s 21 years later, and I realized long ago that isn’t the case, but this goal still amazes me.
- The Face-off Goal: As the story goes, Mario had made a wager with radio host Mark Madden that he could score a goal directly off a face-off. That night, this happened. Accordingly, Madden made a hefty contribution to the Mario Lemieux Foundation. My favorite part is Lemieux looking up at the press box immediately after scoring.
- The Comeback Goal: I remember this night so vividly. I wasn’t there, but I watched every second of coverage at home, wishing I was inside that arena, and remember how surreal it was to see Mario on the ice once more. When Sid scored in his first game back in November, Pens fans were amazed, but at the same time, we were expecting it. We’d seen it before.
- 1987 Canada Cup, against the USSR: I didn’t see this goal live. I was not even six years old. But I have watched countless compilations of Lemieux goals, and this one is engrained in my memory. It was for country, and it was assisted by Wayne Gretzky. What a moment.
I hope someday I have the chance to meet Mario Lemieux. I hope I can look him in the eye, shake his hand, and thank him. It may sound silly to you, but the Penguins have been the one constant in my life over the past few years, and without him, I wouldn’t have that.
Merci, Mario. Merci.