You have to give it to Pittsburgh… they know statues and they do them right. Downtown is practically littered with giant bronze statues of hometown icons. You’ll find 4 statues of former Pittsburgh Pirates outside PNC Park: Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski. Outside the Steelers’ Heinz Field, you’ll see a statue of founder Art Rooney Sr., sitting on a bench, smoking a fat cigar. Heck, even Mister Rogers has a statue in Pittsburgh.
Baltimore is just catching on to the statue thing. There’s a statue of Johnny Unitas outside the Raven’s stadium and one of Babe Ruth outside Camden Yards, but that’s it. I took them to task last summer for commemorating their baseball players thusly:
This “tribute” has all the warmth and humanity of Morse Code.
But by the end of the baseball season last year, they finally unveiled a statue for Orioles 3rd baseman Brooks Robinson. Later, I read that they have plans to likewise celebrate their other Hall of Famers. Presumably, they will have the “numbers” retired.
I would like to have been there for the unveiling of Mario’s statue, but of course, I have a life and it’s not in Pittsburgh, so I had to wait for the reports to filter onto the Internet. So let’s have a look:
Entitled “Le Magnifique,” the statue captures a moment from a 1988 game against the NY Islanders, where Mario took a pass at the blue line, split 2 defenders (who ran into each other) and skated in to bury a shot behind the goalie.
The Pensblog, reacting to some behind-the-scenes tweets, had video up on this goal before the statue was even uncovered.
I love the fact that this statue has the 2 “other” dudes in it, Jeff Norton and Rich Pilon, who basically function as pylons. Right after I saw it, I wondered what those guys thought of being sculpted into the scene. At least one of them, Pilon, took it in stride, saying, “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 defensemen.”
As with the other statues in town, (not including Mister Rogers, whose likeness is more “impressionistic”), the detail was impressive.
Yep, that’s Mario.
If you’re reading this from Pittsburgh or are a big Penguins fan, you already know all about Mario, so you’re forgiven if you skip to the end. But if you don’t know anything about him, let me try to explain why this guy from Montreal merits a statue in Pittsburgh.
At the end of the 1983-84 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins were atrocious, winning only 16 games all season. Their horrid record earned them the right to pick first in the next draft and they selected the can’t-miss 18-year old French-Canadian kid. The Penguins were on shaky ground and desperately needed something or someone to draw butts to the rink. When Mario came to town, he was not fluent in English. Nevertheless, he took the town by storm. He scored a goal in his first game, on his first shift, and never looked back. The kid was a human highlight reel. Rejuvenating the city’s passion for hockey was the first time he saved the team. Even his name was perfect, as the literal French translation for “Lemieux” is: The Best.
He was big, for a goal-scorer, standing 6’4” and going about 230 lbs. He had speed, power, quick feet and brilliant hands. The guy made 50-goal scorers out of a series of average players around him. All they had to do was keep their stick on the ice and he would find it with a precision, tape-to-tape pass.
He led the Pens to their first Stanley Cup in 1991; their second in 1992. They had a line on Number 3 the next year but were upset in the 2nd round by the Islanders.
It’s not a stretch to name Mario and Wayne Gretzky as the two greatest hockey players ever. Gretzky put up far better total numbers, but he had two things in his favor: he played most of his career with far more talented teammates than Mario did for his first 5-6 years in the league. Also, Mario’s career was plagued with injury and illness.
He had chronic back problems, which turned into a herniated disk that kept him from being able to lace up his own skates on many nights. Then late in that ill-fated Cup run of ’93, he announced that he had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He then endured 2 months of energy-draining radiation treatments, which beat the cancer into remission.
On the day he took his last radiation treatment, he flew to Philadelphia to play in a game against the Flyers. Even the rabid Philly fans had to give him a standing O for that kind of toughness. With Mario back the Penguins reeled off 17 straight wins and Mario won the league scoring title.
By the end of the 1996-97 season, with his back taking a toll and as the league’s inability to eliminate the clutching and grabbing sapped the game of its excitement, Mario announced that he was retiring from hockey. He was the first (and only) player to retire while averaging over 2 points per game for his career. (A “point” is either a goal or an assist.)
During his retirement, the Penguins teetered on the edge of financial disaster. Several poor business decisions by ownership resulted in the team having to file for bankruptcy. That meant players like Lemieux that had “deferred” their salaries in order to help the team stay competitive, were not going to get paid. The Penguins owed Mario over $30 million.
Mario sought to recover his money by forming an ownership group of his own and converting his $30 mil into an ownership stake, and with that, he bought the team (which was the 2nd time he saved hockey in Pittsburgh.) With his ownership team, they formed a plan not just to make the team solvent again, but to pay back everyone to whom they owed money. By 2005, all bankruptcy debts were paid off.
He came out of retirement in 2000 to play for the Penguins again. He still had the skills and the hands, but his back was a recurring problem. Regardless, it was great to see him on the ice again, making dazzling moves, setting up his awe-struck teammates and even throwing his body around when the need arose.
Remember, Mario was a big guy. When he wanted to hit someone, he made it count. I’ll never forget those games where you could see that he’d had enough, either with the opponent taking liberties, or the lack of effort from his own squad. You’d see his eyes narrow and turn into icy blue chips, then the next thing you know, [BANG] there’s The Captain, mashing some guy into the glass. Then [BAM], he’s knocking some other defenseman flying. That never failed to jump-start his teammates (and the crowd).
In January of 2006, the year after the NHL lockout, the year after the lockout, Mario announced his final retirement. By then he was also experiencing atrial fibrillation that caused an irregular heartbeat. Between that, the faster pace of the league, and his being, you know… 40 years old, it was time to hang’em up.
The Penguins were still in trouble though. Mellon Arena, their home ice, was the oldest rink in the league. Without the revenues that a new arena would bring, the Penguins would be unable to stay financially competitive. With the team for sale, there was a very real chance that the Pens would be sold and moved out of state. In fact, they were
close to being moved to Kansas City, who had a state of the art arena just waiting for a team to occupy it.
It took some real doing, but the city, state and team eventually came together to produce the finance package it took to build the Consol Energy Center and keep the Pens in the ‘Burgh. In March of 2007, they announced that the deal was done and the team would stay put. I practically passed out from the news. I was a nervous wreck at the prospect of their being no more Penguins hockey. (Chalk up the 3rd time Mario saved hockey in Pittsburgh.)
It’s really tough to encapsulate this guy in just a few pages. Heaven knows there are dozens more storylines and highlights I could write about… the amazing goals, the Canada Cup, the Olympic gold medal and the Stanley Cups… but you can find all that on Wikipedia. Or look up some Mario highlights on YouTube. Sometimes I get lost for hours, watching Mario highlights.
To me, the biggest one was always that last game in Pittsburgh before his first retirement. They were playing the Flyers in the first round of the playoffs. Mario had already announced his retirement and the Flyers were having their way with the Pens in that series. With the Flyers up 3-0, they played Game 4 in Pittsburgh. Everyone knew that barring a miracle, this would be Mario’s last home game. I remember watching the game by myself, in my apartment in Albany NY. (It was about 6 months before I’d move to Baltimore.)
The Pens were winning this one but it was unlikely that they were going to win in Philly. Late in the game, Mario took a pass at the red line and began chugging up the left-side boards, leaving everyone on the other team behind him. You could hear the crowd going insane; or maybe that was just me.
Gary Thorne, the network announcer was right on it, his voice rising with anticipation… “Here he comes… here he comes… Mario Lemieux… hang on… HE SCORES! Ya gotta love it!”
Mario had cut into the middle and ripped a wrist shot past the goalie and into the net. The Igloo proceeded to go berserk. This was like Cal Ripken homering in the game where he tied Lou Gehrig, or in his last All Star game. It was the perfect moment for the history books, as Mario skated around to the boards, arms outstretched to the crowd.
I tell you, I still get chills just thinking about that goal. I know I had tears welling in my eyes up in Albany. The Big Guy came through again.
Mario went on to found the Mario Lemieux Foundation, which raise money to fight cancer and also funds “Austin’s Playroom,” which sets up play areas and gaming units in children’s hospitals around town.
So now, the next time I visit the ‘Burgh, I’m going to have to find time to go and see Mario’s statue. There, he will remain for all time, as simply: The Best.