Despite having a bad back and being a lot older than he used to be, Mario Lemieux had no trouble hoisting the Stanley Cup into the Detroit air Friday night. Pretty impressive, but there's more. Turns out Lemieux had the strength to lift an entire team.
This goes back to the troubling minutes immediately after the Penguins' 5-0 loss to the Detroit Red Wings in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final. The players were a mess. You aren't supposed to lose a game by nearly a touchdown with so much at stake. The coaches might have been worse. What had just hit their team and what in the world were they going to do to keep it from happening again?
"We were, obviously, pretty upset," coach Dan Bylsma said yesterday.
But there, suddenly and unexpectedly, was Lemieux. He was the first to meet the dejected players coming off the ice, which is something he never does. He then huddled briefly behind closed doors with Bylsma and his staff.
It was all positive.
"All he said basically was, 'We'll be all right,' " Bylsma said. "He did the same thing with the coaches in Washington D.C. after we lost the first two games of that series. I clearly remember him saying, 'It's a long two months.' "
Bylsma was touched by the support in a tough moment and said as much to general manager Ray Shero as the team was boarding its flight back to Pittsburgh that night. Shero sent Lemieux a text message to thank him.
Lemieux sent one right back.
We are a family and in this together. We don't need anyone that is only with us WIN or TIE. I really think this is our year. Let's forget about tonight ... It happens. We will win Tuesday and win the Cup Friday.
"Amazing," Shero said yesterday. "We had just got shellacked, 5-0, our goalie had been pulled and he says he's got a great feeling about this team? That's awesome to me."
Shero showed the text to Bylsma, who asked Lemieux if it was OK to send it to each player. Lemieux agreed. The Penguins won Game 6, 2-1, at Mellon Arena Tuesday night.
Just as the boss said they would.
Now, it was Lemieux's turn to ask Bylsma if he thought it would be appropriate for him to send the players one more text. As the Penguins owner, he has tried hard not to interfere with the team. But this was a special case. Just one more win would mean the precious Cup. Lemieux wanted to make sure he did all he could.
Of course, Bylsma told him, send the text.
So on Friday morning, each of the Penguins awoke to find this on their cell phone:
This is a chance of a lifetime to realize your childhood dream to win a Stanley Cup. Play without fear and you will be successful! See you at center ice.
Maybe it wasn't Herb Brooks' speech to the "Miracle on Ice" team before it beat the Russians in 1980, but it was just the right message at just the right time for the Penguins. Lemieux's co-owner of the team -- California billionaire Ron Burkle -- could have sent the same text, but it wouldn't have meant nearly as much. Lemieux is one of hockey's all-time legends. He has been in the players' skates. He knows what they were feeling in those tense moments leading up to Game 7. And his words came from the heart.
"I thought it was perfect," Shero said. "I loved the no fear part."
"Made me want to put on skates and go play," Bylsma said.
"Huge," Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar said.
No one is suggesting that Lemieux's message was the biggest part of the Penguins' 2-1 win in Game 7. That would be winger Max Talbot's two goals. Or maybe goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's 23 saves, including one on Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom in the final seconds.
But when you're playing one game for everything, every little bit helps.
See you at center ice ...
Kind of makes you want to put on skates and play, too, doesn't it?
And so it was at center ice of Detroit's Joe Louis Arena that Lemieux met up with his hockey club for the presentation of the Cup. He congratulated Shero on a job well done. It was Shero, who brought in Bylsma to be coach in mid-February and traded for valuable veteran wingers Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams. Lemieux offered congratulations to Bylsma, as well, and also had a playful message for him. "It's been a long two months," he said, giving the coach a nod, a wink and a big smile.
Finally, after each player and coach had his time with the Cup, it was Lemieux's turn to push it high toward the sky. Bad back? What bad back? The prized trophy felt like a feather in his hands at that moment.
And why not?
The truly heavy lifting already had been done.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published June 15, 2009 4:00 AM