In January 1993, Mario Lemieux
was in the midst of the greatest season of his career – which is saying a lot, considering the number of incredible campaigns he put together. He racked up 104 points in just 40 games and on pace to establish a new NHL scoring record and break Wayne Gretzky’s previous one. Then, at just 27 years old, the Penguins superstar was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease.
Hodgkin’s disease is a cancer that develops in the lymph system, part of the body’s immune system. Over the next six weeks, Lemieux battled the disease with debilitating radiation treatments.
On the morning of March 2, 1993, after Lemieux finished his last radiation treatment he immediately boarded a plane to Philadelphia, where he dressed in that night’s game against the Flyers and scored a goal and an assist in front of the visiting crowd, who gave him a standing ovation. Lemieux then led the Penguins to a 17-game winning streak and the best regular-season record in the NHL.
He picked up right where he left off before his illness, putting up 56 points in 20 games to earn his fourth scoring title and second Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. His return to hockey was incredibly inspiring to all those who watched him.
After a successful battle, Lemieux is now 20 years cancer free. And shortly after emerging victorious in his fight against cancer, he created the Mario Lemieux Foundation to assist others who are not so fortunate. Their goal is to find a cure for cancer. And thanks to Lemieux's commitment and dedication, the Foundation has grown incredibly since its founding and is doing everything in its power to help achieve that ultimate goal.
Among the notable donations made by the Foundation was a $5 million gift given to UPMC Health System to establish the Mario Lemieux Centers for Patient Care and Research and a $3.5 million gift given to the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute to establish the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers.
Just last week, the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation announced that it received a $2.5 million gift from the Mario Lemieux Foundation to establish a new center for rare and hard-to-treat lymphomas that is expected to benefit children and young adults from around the world.
The center is called the Mario Lemieux Lymphoma Center for Children and Young Adults and it will be the first of its kind, focusing on clinical care, laboratory research, and clinical research surrounding difficult-to-treat and rare childhood lymphomas. The Lemieux Lymphoma Center will increase access to care and cutting-edge treatments for all childhood lymphomas, while also bringing together a critical volume of patients with rare lymphomas for research studies that can have a global impact on care.
In 2000, Lemieux’s wife Nathalie expanded the Foundation when she created Austin’s Playroom Project. The project was inspired by an experience Mario and Nathalie had while caring for their premature infant son at Magee-Women’s Hospital. During their time in the hospital caring for their newborn, there was no place to provide a comfortable and calming environment for siblings Lauren and Stephanie.
That led Nathalie to devise a plan and eventually raise funds for playrooms at area hospitals. In 13 years, 28 Austin’s Playrooms have opened, including the first military playroom at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
The Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational, a four-day celebrity tournament, presented by Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield and its attendant events serve as the largest fundraising vehicle for the Mario Lemieux Foundation.
Other fundraising events hosted by the Foundation include Nathalie Lemieux’s Austin’s Playroom Project Luncheon & Fundraiser held in May of each year and the Chicks with Sticks golf event that helps to fund maintenance costs for existing Austin’s Playrooms.
Lemieux, the heart and soul of the Penguins, is arguably the greatest player to ever lace them up and the list of his on-ice achievements is staggering. But what makes him so special is his unwavering commitment and dedication to finding a cure for cancer and making the world a better place off the ice with his Foundation.