By Joe Starkey, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Thursday, March 8, 2012
Those who had always wanted to see Mario Lemieux perform with the arena roof open got their wish Wednesday afternoon.
There he was, literally 10 feet tall, splitting the New York Islanders' defense on his way to a mind-blowing goal. It wasn't happening real-time, of course, but rather on a mammoth statue unveiled outside Consol Energy Center on the day of the Penguins' 66th game of the season.
The old Igloo provided a symbolic backdrop, half-open (half-mutilated, actually) and featuring the giant credit-card ad on the ceiling that reads, "Carry The Pens Tradition."
Some will complain that no one other than Le Magnifique himself should have appeared on the statue, let alone a couple of New York Islanders (Rich Pilon and Jeff Norton). Others will wonder why Norton's rear end is displayed so prominently.
The butt, er, bust reflects not only a classic Mario move but also what he was all about: sheer dominance. Men who played against him share tales of his ridiculous height, reach, vision, skill and power the way others swap tales of UFO sightings.
Basically, Lemieux embarrassed people for a living.
His monument needed a couple of props.
Team president David Morehouse explained that the play — from a Dec. 20, 1988, game — portrayed Lemieux's brilliance on the ice and determination off it.
Let's stay with the on-ice Lemieux, because I fear the new generation of Penguins fans only know him as the regal-looking man in the suit. To me, this day was about celebrating Lemieux the player.
Everybody has a Mario Moment. Mine was his goal against Philly's Garth Snow in the 1997 playoffs. It came late in Game 4, just when it looked as if Lemieux might leave the sport without delivering a parting gift on home ice.
We should have known better. Sprung in on now-Islanders GM Snow, he scored and raised his hands — palms up — to the heavens, as if to thank the Hockey Gods for his wondrous powers. The roof nearly blew off, 15 years before its time.
With that in mind, other Mario Moments ...
>> Penguins television analyst Bob Errey — who assisted on the statue goal — hearkened back to No. 66 carving up the Minnesota North Stars on his legendary goal in the '91 Cup Final:
"I was on the bench," Errey said. "I looked at Trots (Bryan Trottier) and said, 'Oh my God.' "
>> Penguins coach Dan Bylsma recalled a game in which himself, Ray Ferraro and Eddie Olczyk were assigned to "mirror" Lemieux at the old L.A. Forum. They're lucky they didn't wind up on a statue.
"I believe before 30 minutes were up, we were minus-3," Bylsma said. "That experiment didn't go so well."
>> Penguins broadcaster Paul Steigerwald, the man who picked up Mario at the airport upon the latter's arrival in 1984, went way back:
"First shot, first goal, first game, that's what I remember," Steigerwald said of the undressing of Raymond Bourque. "I was watching it on the USA Network, in (ex-Penguins coach) Lou Angotti's living room with my dad."
>> Sidney Crosby picked Mario's comeback game in 2000. He was home watching with his family.
"I remember the anticipation," Crosby said.
>> Regina Kealey, who has been working the dining rooms at Penguins games since 1986, shared Crosby's choice.
"Dec. 27, 2000," she said. "I was plating up pies in the kitchen when some reporter asked what the day meant. I said, 'It's like bringing home a new baby.' "
>> Penguins radio analyst Phil Bourque chose Lemieux's short-handed goal against the Bruins in the 1992 playoffs (Raymond Bourque naked again).
"I was in the penalty box, and I remember the attendant -- who had a Bruins jacket on — giving me a little fist pound," Bourque said. "If (then Bruins-GM) Harry Sinden had seen it, that guy would have been fired on the spot."
>> Mike "Doc" Emrick, in town to call last night's game, remembered Lemieux coming back from cancer treatments to play a game in Philadelphia.
"He took a commercial flight, arrived late afternoon and skated onto Spectrum ice," Emrick said. "The fans who would (later) boo Sid and booed Mario, saluted Mario with a nice ovation. He had a goal, I remember. That told me as much about him as anything."
>> One of Mario's two older brothers, ex-Penguin Alain Lemieux, picked a random game against the Rangers, one of many Mario played when nobody thought he would.
"He called me that day and said, 'There's no way I'm playing; the back's not good,'" Alain Lemieux recalled. "Well, I turn on the TV that night, and he's sitting on the bench."
One can't help but wonder what Mario might have done if his body hadn't been wracked with injury and illness.
"It would have been nice," he said, "to see how many points I could have gotten playing 1,500 games (as opposed to 915)."
Going by his career points-per-game average of 1.89, he would have finished with precisely 2,824 points, only 33 behind Wayne Gretzky.
In other words, Mario might have set himself up to become most prolific point producer in hockey history. He'll have to settle for being the most physically dominant -- a dominance depicted expertly on a 4,700-pound monument that deserves praise, not nitpicking.