After years of success, Mario Lemieux finally ran into an opponent he could not defeat – his health.
Lemieux, a dominant force throughout his 17 NHL seasons, retired from hockey Tuesday afternoon at Mellon Arena. He cited an ongoing heart condition known as atrial fibrillation and a concern that his body was no longer able to let him play up to his standards as his reasons to step aside.
“This is always a difficult decision to make for any athlete, but I feel the time has come. It’s in the best interest of myself, my family and the Pittsburgh Penguins,” Lemieux said. “I have two main reasons for retiring. The first is I can no longer play at level I was accustomed to in the past. That has been very, very frustrating to me throughout this past year.
“The second one is realizing that my health, along with my family, is the most important thing in the world.”
The news was shocking to his teammates, but they understood that Lemieux’s health was far more important than hockey.
“We are all worried about his health. The hockey part is nothing compared to his health. He has a lot going on in his life right now and he feels it’s the appropriate time [to retire],” Penguins winger Mark Recchi said. “I knew last week that he was definitely thinking about it. It gets harder and harder to continually get back into shape to be able to play this game. With what’s going on with his health, he thought it was time.”
Lemieux played in 26 games and racked up 22 points this year for the Penguins. However, an irregular heartbeat, later diagnosed as atrial fibrillation, put him in a Pittsburgh-area hospital on Dec. 7 after he experienced the problem during practice that morning. He was discharged on Dec. 8 and put on medication to regulate the heartbeat. He missed the Penguins’ next four games before returning on Dec. 16 against the Buffalo Sabres at Mellon Arena.
He had a relapse of the condition during the third period of that game and has not played since. This is what first made him contemplate retirement this season.
“After that night, I really started thinking about my future and what’s best for my health and my family,” he said. “I have been thinking about it for a little while.”
Nevertheless, Super Mario wanted to come back to the ice. He re-joined the team for practice on Jan. 9, but decided to retire as the atrial fibrillation persisted.
“[The heart condition] has been a big part of this year. Even to this day, I am not feeling 100 percent,” Lemieux said. “That is the most frustrating thing to practice with it and play with it. It was frustrating to me.
“I don’t feel great every day when I wake up,” he continued. “I am looking at all of my options, including surgery.”
The condition has drained Lemieux of his energy, which has not allowed him to keep up at age 40.
“If I could play this game at a decent level, I’d come back and play. This is really a new NHL and it’s built on speed and young guys,” he said. “I think it’s great to see. We’re seeing a lot of young guys now coming in and really being some of the best in the league.”
Lemieux, who retired in 1997 but returned to the ice in late 2000, has missed 398 games throughout his illustrious career with a variety of injuries including back and hip problems as well as cancer. Yet, he was able to become one of the NHL’s all-time greats and lead the Penguins two back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and ’92 and Team Canada to gold medals at the 1987 Canada Cup, the 2002 Winter Olympics and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
“If you add up all the stuff he’s gone through his whole life – he’s faced so much adversity and overcome it,” Penguins rookie Sidney Crosby said. “It’s incredible what he’s gone through. If there’s anyone that could have done it, it’s him. I am sure mentally and physically, it’s taken its toll over the years and he feels it’s time to move on.
“For him to go through all that, yet still succeed and do everything he’s done on the ice is unbelievable,” he continued. “He’s one of the great ones.”