The arena still sits at 66 Mario Lemieux Place. His nameplate adorns an empty stall in the team dressing room. Fans who wear their hearts on their sleeves wear his name on their backs. His jersey and retired number have been restored to their place of honor among the championship banners hanging from the rafters.
The agreement to sell the franchise notwithstanding, Mario Lemieux and the Penguins still share a bond as unbreakable as the chemical partnership of hydrogen and oxygen atoms that create molecules of water that in turn form ice. Fitting, in that Le Magnifique was the oxygen for hockey in Pittsburgh since 1984.
Last night, on the occasion of his 41st birthday, Lemieux stood at a news conference in a business suit to introduce the new owner of a franchise he took to championship glory as a player, then bailed out of bankruptcy with money he was owed by the previous owners. He is not keeping any money in the team but left open the possibility of serving as a consultant.
"I'm always going to be a Penguin," Lemieux said. "I love this team and this city. I'm raising my kids here ... I'd love to be involved in the franchise."
As difficult as it is to put aside the memorable goals and trophies accumulated in a Hall of Fame hockey career, the focus of Lemieux's appearance last night was on his save -- the biggest one in franchise history, the one that kept it afloat in dire times.
Eight months ago, when a heart ailment and the toll of time forced him to retire, Lemieux announced that the franchise was on the market. He said at the time that the Penguins might have to leave town if a new arena isn't built, and he didn't want to be the owner who moved them from the city where they were born 39 years ago.
Financial hard times has nudged him into this unique position as a player who owned the team that employed him. In 1998, when the Penguins sought relief in bankruptcy court while drowning in red ink, Lemieux was still owed about $28 million under a guaranteed contract he signed after winning the second Stanley Cup.
Navigating the minefield of a legal process in which he emerged as the chief creditor, Lemieux put up his contract to cover $20 million in equity to assume ownership while forfeiting the remainder. He assembled an investment group that brought in an infusion of cash from California supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, Wildfire Productions, SMG Pittsburgh, William and Patricia Kassling, the Robert Brooks family, Robert and Mark Hofmann, BBSALP Holdings, Friends of Mario, The Emperor Group, James Gale, and Paula and Angela Falconi.
Lemieux took over the team Sept. 3, 1999, but his ownership was seen as transitional or temporary. Now, Lemieux is recovering his investment and the reins have been handed to Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie, who intends to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh if a new arena is built, either by the Isle of Capri if its slots license is approved or through a Plan B.
Lemieux returned as a player in 2000, returning from a bout with cancer and two back surgeries. Last year, Lemieux was the team captain on opening night against the New Jersey Devils when the NHL returned from year-long shutdown. The burden of his multi-tasking took its own toll. Not only did Lemieux have to face snarly defensemen and stingy goalies, he was involved in getting a deal for an arena and keeping watch on the franchise's finances as chairman and chief executive officer.
In January, Lemieux hung up his skates for good. As of last night, he bade farewell as an owner. And Mark Recchi, whose name is on the Stanley Cup with Lemieux's, said he was happy for his friend and former teammate.
"He built this franchise to where it is," Recchi said. "He kept it here, kept it afloat. He saved it. I'm excited for him. I can only imagine how hard it's been. It got to be overwhelming. I'm really excited that it's finally off his shoulders. Hopefully, the rest can get done properly."
Fans who have cheered Lemieux's exploits would have preferred to have watched him in uniform against the rival Philadelphia. Flyers last night. When fans chanted his name in pre-game ceremonies, Lemieux stood to acknowledge cheers from the owner's box and delivered an unspoken message -- he's always going to be the soul of the Penguins.
"That's not ever going to change. He's always going to be close to the team," said Sidney Crosby, who eclipsed Lemieux's rookie scoring record last season.
To hammer home the point one last time that the torch had been passed, Crosby delivered a video tribute to Lemieux before the game.
"Speaking for the rest of the players, as long as that 66 hangs above us, we'll do our best to carry on your legacy," Crosby said.
Robert Dvorchak can be reached at 412-263-1959 or at email@example.com .