A super statue for a super Mario
Brian Smith of Canonsburg takes a photo of his hockey idol's statue Wednesday before the Penguins game with Toronto.
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Count Mario Lemieux among those who wonder what kind of statistics he might have compiled if his Penguins career hadn't been pocked by back, hip and knee injuries and cancer.
"I missed tons of games and tons of seasons over the years. It would have been nice to see how many points I could have gotten playing 1,500 games," Mr. Lemieux said Wednesday.
Still, the Hall of Fame center and team co-owner had a highly productive career and dazzled fans with his skill, grace and power. What he has done on and off the ice over the years earned him an honor many probably believe was overdue:
The club on Wednesday unveiled a statue of Mr. Lemieux, dubbed "Le Magnifique," that rises more than 10 feet in front of Consol Energy Center.
Much was symbolic about the ceremony, which attracted a throng of fans, Mr. Lemieux's family, current Penguins players and club officials, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
It was held on a gorgeous midday with temperatures at least approaching -- if not reaching -- 66, the retired jersey number of Mr. Lemieux.
The site is along Centre Avenue, directly across the street from the hulking bones of Civic Arena, home ice for Mr. Lemieux for his entire career. The old arena is being razed.
The bronze statue, sculpted by Bruce Wolfe, represents Mr. Lemieux's artistry as a player and his ability to break through obstacles.
It is adapted from a Sports Illustrated photograph of a scoring play, taken by Paul Bereswill and among the Hockey Hall of Fame's collection. Mr. Lemieux, the puck on his blade, is splitting New York Islanders defensemen Rich Pilon and Jeff Norton in a Dec. 20, 1988 game.
The depiction was selected over many other potential poses -- and that process came after team officials finally persuaded Mr. Lemieux to OK the statue.
As Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse pointed out during the unveiling, perhaps no one is more closely associated with one sports franchise than Mr. Lemieux, 46, is with the Penguins.
In a rare public speaking appearance, Lemieux thanked his family, his fans, his teammates and his business partners, including team co-owner Ron Burkle.
"I'm always nervous when I have to speak in front of people, but it was a great day," Mr. Lemieux said.
"When they have a statue like this in your honor, it's something special for myself, my family and, of course, the fans who have followed my career."
The Penguins drafted Mr. Lemieux in 1984 when he was 18, having earned the right to select him first overall by being the worst team in the NHL the previous season.
Mr. Lemieux, from the Montreal suburb of Laval, didn't speak fluent English, and the Penguins had a loyal but small following. All of that changed over the years.
Despite health-related setbacks, Mr. Lemieux captained the Penguins to Stanley Cups in 1991 and '92, and won another as owner in 2009 in what is now the Penguins' Sidney Crosby era. He ranks seventh in NHL history with 1,723 points and ninth with 690 goals in just 915 games. Most of the other top scorers in league history played in more than 1,000 games.
Mr. Lemieux won six Art Ross Trophies as the league's top scorer, three Hart Trophies as MVP, the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, a Masterton Trophy for perseverance, and captained Canada to the 2002 Olympic gold medal.
Along the way, Mr. Lemieux -- who settled locally and is raising his four children here -- turned Pittsburgh into a hockey town that is passionate about the Penguins and studded with rinks that house thousands of youth players.
The growing fan base early in Mr. Lemieux's career helped keep the Penguins in town. In 1999, Mr. Lemieux bought the team out of bankruptcy and eventually repaid all creditors in full. And after he retired, he led the push to get Consol Energy Center built, once again saving the team from relocation.
Mr. Lemieux retired in 1997, came back during the 2000-01 season and retired for good in January 2006 -- Mr. Crosby's rookie season -- because of a heart condition.
In making an introductory speech at the unveiling ceremony, longtime Penguins broadcaster Mike Lange recalled a famous play from Mr. Lemieux's junior days with Laval when he scored against Verdun goaltender Troy Crosby. The story made Troy's son, Sidney, grin widely as he sat in the audience.
Mr. Crosby has had most of the past 14 months of his career wrecked because of a concussion and neck injury. He was cleared for contact Tuesday and could return to the lineup as soon as Sunday.
Mr. Lemieux, who has served as a full-time or part-time landlord to Mr. Crosby for more than six years, understands the frustration.
"It's never fun to be on the sideline, especially with Sid's injury," Mr. Lemieux said. "It's a little different than back surgery or hip surgery or a knee or anything else. You have to be patient, but I think he's getting better and he's getting close to getting back on the ice [in a game]. It's going to be exciting when he gets back."
After all that Mr. Lemieux went through -- including the premature birth of son Austin, whom he now coaches -- he and his wife, Nathalie, have put a lot of effort into the Mario Lemieux Foundation.
"I have gone through cancer myself, in 1993," said Mr. Lemieux, who had Hodgkin's lymphoma. "I felt it was important to have a foundation to try to help others and give them hope. That's what we're doing now. We're trying to raise as much money as we can for cancer research and neonatal research and Nathalie [being involved in] Austin's Playrooms. We're trying to do as much as we can for the community.
"To me, that's the least I can do. I've been very fortunate throughout my career, and the least I can do is try to give back."
For one afternoon, it was Mr. Lemieux's turn to receive.
First Published March 8, 2012 12:00 am