Watching the Pittsburgh Penguins in the early 1990s, it would have been hard to believe there could be a better time for the organization. Mario Lemieux, arguably the greatest player of all time, was guiding his team to back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships. The Igloo was packed, the fans were crazy, and it felt like nothing could top those amazing black and gold glory days.
Fast-forward almost two decades: the Penguins are once again in the hunt for consecutive NHL Championships. This time, arguably the greatest player in the game, Sidney Crosby, a Lemieux protege, is lighting up the ice in front of a full house that is hosting its final playoff games. The Penguins will soon be in a brand new arena, their future in Pittsburgh solidified, their status as an NHL dynasty secured. And once again, Mario Lemieux is at the heart of the Pens' success.
The only person to win a Stanley Cup as a player and owner, he has brought much more than trophies to the city of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania hockey fans. Lemieux worked to keep hockey in the steel city when the team wasn't winning, and financial support was waning. He gave the franchise the opportunity to live up to one of his own nicknames, "The Comeback Kid."
After beating Hodgkin's lymphoma and returning to the ice from retirement, saving the Penguins from financial ruin may not have seemed like the impossible. That may be the magic of Le Magnifique.
Lemieux has the heart and soul of a champion, evidenced in a trophy case which holds scoring titles, MVP awards, team championships and even an Olympic gold medal. But that winning spirit is also reflected in Lemieux's business deals, and other aspects of his life: from his charity work, to supporting his sons' (and daughters') hockey teams, to inviting young players like Sidney Crosby to live in his home while they adjust to the NHL.
Where would the Penguins be without Lemieux? Perhaps in possession of fewer championships, and perhaps playing in another city. But beyond the concrete accomplishments, Super Mario has battled injury, illness, the economy and the odds to achieve inspirational success on and off the ice.
Etched in the memories of long-time Penguins fans are the images of Lemieux looking up at a standing ovation as his retired No. 66 jersey is raised to the rafters, celebrating his Hall of Fame induction.
Today, Lemieux sits in a luxury box near the rafters, looking down over a team and a franchise he brought back from near extinction, nestled in a city he's adopted as home.
As much as Pittsburgh fans love their Penguins, Lemieux has loved Pittsburgh more. As a player and owner, he's given more than seems possible to the organization, the town and the sport; he's a hero of two championship eras and generations of Pens fans.
Kellie Goodman can be reached at Kellie@BedfordCountyChamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.