There are some who believe in a higher power and there are some who don’t. However, as I watched Pittsburgh Penguins great and owner Mario Lemieux field questions from reporters regarding his team’s 2-0 Stanley Cup victory over the Nashville Predators as well as the comeback season that provided Pittsburgh with their fifth Stanley Cup, my mind hit rewind allowing me to recall part of the journey to “today.”
I also thought of the fifth and sixth verses of the 23rd Psalm, taken from the Holy Bible. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
The Penguins were forced to win the Stanley Cup in enemy territory and the Nashville Predators fans more than vocalized their displeasure at the enemies from the Steel City hoisting the trophy of victory in their house, with the stench of dead catfish providing the perfect backdrop for a unique and different fan base that mistakenly confused team support and loyalty with “stinkin’ thinkin.’”
The Nashville fans even hung around to boo the official trophy presentation. If the Predators fans had done their homework, they would have realized that comebacks are the rule, rather than the exception with the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey club.
Still in the midst of a sparkling career in January 1993, the Hall-of-Fame career of Lemieux was put on hold, while he was forced to board a train traveling at warp speed toward an uncertain future. On January 13, 1993, the Associated Press headline read, “Lemieux Has Hodgkin’s Disease; Doesn’t Appear Life-Threatening.” The article, in part, read, “Mario Lemieux’s condition was diagnosed as Hodgkin’s disease on Tuesday, but his doctor said the cancer didn’t appear to be life-threatening. Lemieux was found to be in the early stages of the disease after a large lymph node was removed from his neck, according to a statement issued by the Pittsburgh Penguins and approved by team physician Charles Burke. The Penguins said Lemieux, who recently signed a seven-year, $42-million contract, could return to the lineup in four to six weeks, although that projection could change, depending on his response to radiation treatment.”
In an article that appeared in Sports Illustrated on Jan. 22, 1996, Karen Guregian wrote, “After 18 months away from hockey, Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar center, had made his return to the game when the season opened in October, and his encore performance was more spectacular than anyone could have imagined. In the Year of the Comeback, Super Mario once again stood alone. There were times early in the season when nothing seemed impossible for Lemieux or for the surprising Penguins, a team he has lifted to elite status once again. In a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in November, Lemieux had seven points; he had four goals against the Boston Bruins.
“Then he felt it. The little lump,” he says. It was two weeks before Christmas and Lemieux was performing a routine physical exam, searching the areas around his armpits and neck for any sign of the cancer that had attacked his body.”
When asked what Lemieux’s return meant to his team, Pittsburgh coach Eddie Johnston looked up to the heavens, made the sign of the cross and said, ‘I thank God for him every day.’”
Going back to the Bible verse, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…”
Lemieux came back from cancer and resurrected the Pittsburgh Penguins when they were floundering in his absence. Lemieux later purchased the team when they were suffering from a diminishing market share, and were headed toward the auction block. He saved Pittsburgh hockey both as a player and an owner. Mario could have taken the money and run. However, he knew that if he called the “house” to pay up, Pittsburgh Hockey would have died instantly. He took a loss as a player to gain and prosper as an owner. Goodness and mercy have followed Lemieux and his team. They are a product of his courage and commitment. The Pittsburgh Penguins are Mario Lemieux and Mario Lemieux is the Penguins.
(Aubrey Bruce can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-583-6741.)
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