By Alan Robinson - NHL.com Correspondent
March 7, 2012
PITTSBURGH -- Mario Lemieux truly is a larger-than-life figure -- always able to accomplish the seemingly unachievable feat, capture the unwinnable title, score the impossible goal.
Now, a player whose hockey career is unrivaled for the scope of his accomplishments on and off the ice has been immortalized in a statue that captures both the competitiveness and perseverance that made him special.
A 10 1/4-foot bronze statue that depicts Lemieux splitting through two defensemen to score a breakaway goal in a Dec. 20, 1988 game against the Islanders was unveiled Wednesday at Consol Energy Center, literally across the street from the arena known as The Igloo where the picture-perfect goal was scored.
"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," Lemieux said.
Lemieux confessed during a sun-splashed March day where the temperature fittingly neared 66 degrees that he did not remember the goal Penguins announcer Mike Lange said will be photographed "a billion times" by generations of hockey fans.
Lemieux fought through defensemen Rich Pilon and Jeff Norton, who collided as soon as Lemieux evaded them, to beat goaltender Kelly Hrudey with a wrist shot in a game Pittsburgh won 5-3.
Lemieux can be forgiven for the lapse of memory as he reflected on a career in which he was constantly dealt medical obstacles -- debilitating back pain, cancer and an end-of-career heart problem -- but still played at a level reached by only a few others in NHL history.
"I saw pictures while they were building it," Lemieux said of the 4,700-pound statue. "It's pretty impressive to see it up close."
Only 11 days following that now-immortalized goal, Lemieux played perhaps the most memorable of his 915 regular-season games, scoring five goals five different ways -- even-strength, power play, shorthanded, penalty shot and empty net -- against the Devils.
The statue is called Le Magnifique, or The Magnificent, and it took Penguins executives, civic leaders and his own friends years to convince Lemieux to allow it to be created by bronze sculptor Bruce Wolfe of Berkeley, Calif. The design and construction required 15 months, followed by a week-long trip to Pittsburgh on a flatbed truck.
"He said he didn't want it five times, so (Penguins co-owner) Ron Burkle finally told him we were going to do it anyway," said David Morehouse, the Penguins CEO and president.
Morehouse said a Sports Illustrated photo depicting the goal was chosen as the model for the statue because it captured how Lemieux overcame every obstacle in his path to achieve greatness.
"We considered a number of options, including one of Mario hoisting the Stanley Cup as a player, and one of him carrying the puck in full flight, but we decided this was the ultimate representation of what he did and what he was," Morehouse said. "On the ice, Mario powered his way past defensemen to score incredible goals. Off the ice, he overcame and broke through so many challenges."
Those on hand for the half-hour unveiling ceremony included NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle, who flew overnight from Paris, and numerous former Lemieux teammates, including Bryan Trottier, Luc Robitaille and Pierre Larouche, as well as Lemieux's family -- including his mother, Pierrette; brothers Richard and Alain; wife Nathalie and their four children, Lauren, Stephanie, Austin and Alexa.
"It's a testament to him as a person and as much a testament to his commitment to Pittsburgh. ... It's just great to be here and to honor somebody as terrific as Mario," Bettman said in a post-ceremony interview with Root Sports.
Lemieux, during remarks in which he was constantly interrupted by thousands of cheering fans, recalled his first trip to Pittsburgh after being drafted No. 1 in 1984 and how he couldn't have envisioned becoming so tied to a city other than his native Montreal.
"He didn't save hockey in Pittsburgh once, he saved it three times," Morehouse said.
Lemieux lifted up a poor-drawing, couldn't-be-worse franchise in the 1980s and, with his talent and determination, carried what once was the NHL's worst team to two Stanley Cups and a record-setting 17-game winning streak in 1993.
As an active player Lemieux was rivaled only by Wayne Gretzky, scoring 690 goals and accumulating 1,033 assists for 1,723 points during a career interrupted by layoffs resulting from an early-in-his-career back injury, a 1993 bout with cancer and a 3 ½-year retirement.
Even while never truly healthy in any season past age 25, when his back problems worsened to the point they caused him to sit out more than half of the Penguins' 1990-91 championship season, Lemieux won six Art Ross Trophies and three Hart Trophies.
"I missed tons of games, tons of seasons over the years, and it would have been nice to see how points I could have gotten if I had played 1,500 games," Lemieux said. "Who knows where I would have ended up."
When he made his remarkable comeback in December 2000, Lemieux did so as the first and only owner-player in major American pro sports history, having bought the team, along with his partners, during a U.S. Bankruptcy Court sale the year before.
After he retired for the final time in January 2006 following a brief bout with a heart problem, he helped keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh again by spearheading the negotiations that led to the construction of Consol Energy Center. And in 2009, Lemieux lifted the Stanley Cup again, this time as an owner.
Lemieux becomes the only Pittsburgh athlete other than baseball Hall of Famers Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates to be portrayed in a statue. No Steelers player has been so recognized, although there is a statue of founder Art Rooney Sr. outside Heinz Field.
Numerous civic leaders, including Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, said Lemieux has become so engrained in Pittsburgh -- his charitable foundation is one of the most generous and active in the city -- that it is only fitting that Lemieux now has a statue honoring him.
"It's why I decided to stay here; I love the people here," Lemieux said. "They give me my space -- I can go anywhere in town and people will say hello and respect my privacy, which is important to me. That's why I love living here."
Lemieux is greatly responsible for hockey's widespread popularity in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins have sold out every home game for more than five years. When Lemieux arrived in town, there were only six ice rinks in the vicinity; now there are 36. And more than 10,000 amateurs play the sport, some at such a high level that four Pittsburgh-area players were among the top 65 picks in the NHL Draft last spring.
"He played for the team, he bought the team, he owns the team, he IS the team," said Lange, the Penguins announcer and the ceremony host.
THE TWO OTHER GUYS IN THAT MAGNIFICENT TRIBUTE
By Bob McKenzie
March 7, 2012
"To tell you the truth, it's very cool," Pilon told TSN, just minutes after the statue was unveiled in Pittsburgh. "I have no problem with it. If you're going to get beat on a play and it's there for everyone to see forever, it might as well be Mario. He did that to a lot of defencemen."
Pilon wasn't aware he was part of the statue until he got a text shortly after 12 noon today from his old buddy and former teammate Dean Chynoweth.
"I remember the play pretty well," Pilon said. "I have the photo, actually. Someone I know had a hockey calendar with that photo (taken by Sports Illustrated's Paul Bereswill) and they sent to me. It's right up there on my office wall. So I remember the play well. Mario scored a lot of his big goals against the Islanders.
"That was my rookie season (Dec. 20, 1988). No shame in a rookie getting beaten like that by Mario. It was a privilege just to play in the NHL and against players like Mario."
The Penguins say they chose that particular image as the basis for the statue because "it was a metaphor for everything Lemieux accomplished in his career and his life, breaking through defenders, overcoming obstacles, turning back challenges."
Pilon certainly recovered from that Lemieux goal. He went on to play 631 regular season games over 14 NHL seasons, mostly with the Islanders but also the New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues.
The 43-year-old is now living in Saskatoon with his wife and two children. He notes he's been sober for seven years and life is good, working with Cameco, the uranium mining company.
"I'm doing a project called Dream and Believe," Pilon said. "It's aimed at kids eight to 14 years old in northern Saskatchewan communities and we're using hockey to help them stay away from (substance abuse). So I'm at a good place right now and doing well."
And that's even with Mario beating him and Norton for all eternity.