Dubbed "Super Mario" and "The Magnificent" by his legion of fans, Mario Lemieux truly belongs in the pantheon of all-time hockey greats alongside fellow Canadians Rocket Richard, Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky. Neither a battle with cancer nor serious back injuries have been able to put an end to a career that is now two decades old.
Lemieux's status as a sports legend is eloquently testified to by his career record: a six-time NHL scoring champion, three-time MVP, two-time Stanley Cup winner, and scoring totals of 683 goals and 1,018 assists for 1,701 points in 889 games.
Born in Montreal on September 5, 1965, Lemieux - which translates as the "the best" - demonstrated at an early age that he intended to be just that. In his final year in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League he scored a record 133 goals and added 149 assists for 282 points in 70 games. He was named Canadian Junior Hockey Player of the year and was selected first overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1984. Mario went on to chalk up 100 points in his rookie campaign and was awarded the Calder Trophy as best first year player.
Lemieux has seen his career interrupted several times by injuries, but the most serious threat came in 1993 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease, a form of cancer. He missed 23 games as he received radiation treatment, but still managed to come back and win the scoring title. He took the entire 1994-95 season off to recover from back injuries and other ailments, but came back to win two Art Ross and a Hart Trophy before announcing his retirement in 1997.
The Hockey Hall of Fame waived its waiting period and inducted Lemieux in November 1997. But Super Mario made a surprise comeback. In 1999, with the Penguins were facing bankruptcy, he headed an ownership team that bought the club and kept it in Pittsburgh. In late 2000, he stepped back onto the ice as a player.
After the NHL lockout concluded, Lemieux returned to the ice for the 200506 season. Hopes for the Penguins were high due to the salary cap and revenue sharing, which enabled the team to compete in the market for several star players. Another reason for optimism was the Penguins winning the lottery for the first draft pick, enabling them to select Sidney Crosby. Lemieux opened up his home to Crosby to help the rookie settle in Pittsburgh and also served as Crosby's mentor.
On January 24, 2006, Mario Lemieux announced his second and permanent retirement from professional hockey at the age of 40. This followed a half-season in which he struggled not only with the increased speed of the "new NHL" but also with yet another threatening physical ailment, a heart condition called atrial fibrillation that caused him to experience irregular heartbeats.
Although he had put up points at a pace that most NHL forwards would be perfectly content with (22 points in 26 games) in his last season, Lemieux still remarked that "I can no longer play at a level I was accustomed to in the past."
In October 2006, Lemieux's ownership group announced that it had reached an agreement to sell the Penguins to Research in Motion Chairman and Co-CEO Jim Balsillie. However, Balsillie unexpectedly rescinded his offer two months later, after an apparent dispute with the NHL Board of Governors.
On March 13, 2007, Lemieux's ownership group announced a final agreement for a new multi-purpose arena, eventually to be named Consol Energy Center, to be built across the street from the current Mellon Arena. The deal would keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh for at least 30 years. Lemieux was instrumental in negotiating this deal, despite outside efforts to move the team to Kansas City.
The Penguins returned to the playoffs, losing in 5 games to the Ottawa Senators in 2007, and making the Finals in 2008 where they lost in six games to the Detroit Red Wings. On June 12, 2009, Lemieux won his 3rd Stanley Cup, this time as an owner, as the Penguins won a rematch with the Red Wings, in seven games.
Mario Lemieux has a considerable number of records, and stands in comparison along with Wayne Gretzky as one of the best NHL players of all time. Two records (points in a season and assists in a season) have their first 10 listings as either Gretzky or Lemieux.
Lemieux's career was cut short by Hodgkin's lymphoma, which has led many to speculate that his career totals would have been far higher had he been healthy throughout his career.