The Pittsburgh Penguins have called a 2:00pm press conference to announce the retirement of Mario Lemieux. They have not come out and stated that is the reason for the conference, but it is being reported in many different news outlets. This is truly a sad day for hockey.....and the Pittsburgh Penguin organization.
The hardest part is that I kept thinking we would have one more game, one more magical shift, one more assist or goal. Just a chance to say goodbye. When Mario retired the first time, it was a magical evening against the Philadelphia Flyers. He had just scored a fantastic goal, on a breakaway no less, and the standing room crowd sort of knew that would be the last chance to say goodbye to the icon that was Mario, Le Magnifique, the savior of the franchise. There was one more game in Philadelphia, but it was a long shot. This was the opportunity to show Mario what he meant to the fans of Pittsburgh. The ovation went on for 10 minutes, as Simply the Best - Mario's theme song, blared from the arena sound system. There were a lot of tears that night, sadness and joy. It was a celebration of sorts. It was closure for Mario and the people who adored him. Even Mario was moved to tears, it was confirmation that he loved the game, the city and the fans. I never forgot that night. It was very special.
Mario gave us no reason to think that he could not come back from his Atrial Fibrillation, he was the king of the comeback. Back Problems, he came back. Cancer, he came back. Anemia, he came back. Duel hip surgeries, he came back. Nothing seemed to beat Mario, he was super human. No man could overcome the adversity that he faced and still perform the way he did.....but he did it. When he couldn't bend over to tie his skates, someone did it for him and he was still the best the player in the world. The reality of the situation is that the Atrial Fibrillation is probably the most intimidating thing he has faced, next to the cancer of course, and it is probably foolish to continue playing with the risk of additional heart issues, including heart attack. However my own selfishness is hard to overcome.
Mario Lemieux is probably the sole reason I am as big a hockey fan as I am. I am 30 years old, and right around the time I began watching the Penguins Mario was drafted. He was a shy young man who was thrust into a new environment and had to learn a new language and culture. All the while he was performing at the absolute highest level on the ice. What Mario accomplished was amazing! It made me want to play the game, to watch the game and to follow his career and the Pittsburgh Penguins religiously. His wonders on the ice are well documented. That isn't all that makes this man great though.
Mario has taken on the fight against cancer. He has raised millions of dollars through his Celebrity Golf Invitational. He has donated millions to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centers to establish specific programs to work on a cure for cancer, especially with regard to children. In addition to all of these great feats, he has personally taken it upon himself to try and keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh.
He purchased the team out of bankruptcy and became it's primary owner and CEO. That was the second time he saved hockey in Pittsburgh. The first being his being drafted and helping mold the team into a champion. As time went on and Mario watched the game from the owner's box, his competitive fires began to burn again. He decided that he could still be one of, if not the best in the world. Mario hit the ice again on December 27, 2000, picking up a point 30 seconds into the comeback. Mario was magical in posting 76 points in 43 games during year one of his return. Unfortunately, injuries began to mount at that point and took their toll over the next 5 years. Which leads us to today.....his second retirement and the point of this retrospective.
Ultimately, I know that this is best for Mario. His health is the most important thing right now. There are many other issues that he must deal with, such as the potential sale of the team and the fight for the stand alone slots license which would provide a new arena. If he succeeds in this, his greatest challenge yet, he will have saved the Penguins again.
Thank you for all that you have done for the City of Pittsburgh Mario! It may not always seem like it, but the city and it's fans love you. Thank you for introducing me to the game, and giving me 20 great years. I will never forget them....