Many amateur hockey coaches have played the game at an elite level, and some even have made it as far as the National Hockey League.
But imagine being a 13-year-old player on a team that’s coached by one of the greatest hockey players of all time.
That’s the situation for the 1996 Pittsburgh Junior Penguins and their head coach – Mario Lemieux.
Lemieux, 44, the Hockey Hall of Famer and six-time NHL scoring champion, is in his second season behind the bench of the Junior Penguins. He spent last year as an assistant coach before taking over the top reins prior to this season.
Making it even more special for Le Magnifique is that he has the opportunity to coach his son, Austin.
“I have been doing this for the past couple of years,” Lemieux said. “I enjoy coaching the young kids and being a part of youth hockey. It is a great experience just to give back to the game and to these little guys.
“It has been a lot of fun for me. It has been time consuming because we travel quite a bit with the team. But it has been a joy for me to coach these kids and teach them what I know.”
As fulfilling as coaching has been for Lemieux, his players have also benefitted from learning the finer points of the game from one of the NHL’s all-time greats.
“The players think it’s really cool to have a coach like (my dad) who really knows what he is talking about,” Austin Lemieux said.
“It’s probably the best experience I have ever had because he knows so much about hockey,” defenseman Keenan Murray said. “Everything he learned he is trying to give to us. It is really great that I can have this experience to learn from him.”
“It’s a great experience,” added team captain Davis McNulty. “He is an awesome coach. I love playing for him.”
Sometimes during practice the “awesome coach” takes the time to join a drill or two and remind the players what an “awesome player” he was back when he was regular racking 100-point seasons, leading his team to two Stanley Cups and claiming three MVP trophies.
“We do this drill where the puck goes behind the net and he forechecks us,” Murray said. “I think, ‘This guy must have been great when he was 22, 23 years-old.’ It is just unbelievable to watch him skate.”
Murray said having Lemieux as a coach is equally as jaw-dropping for his parents, who have been huge Penguins fans since the pinnacle of Lemieux’s career when he led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and ’92.
“My parents are just astonished that I can have the opportunity to be in the presence of him,” Murray said. “When I was about 6 years old they said, ‘This guy has done a lot for the Penguins organization.’ Now I am coached by him. It is really great.”
Great would be one of the numerous syllables that could be used to describe the performance of Lemieux’s team in a 7-3 victory over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Jr. Knights Saturday morning at the Blade Runners Ice Complex in Harmarville, Pa.
After falling behind the Knights, 1-0, less than four minutes into the game, it was a pretty passing play from Austin that got the Penguins on the board.
Taking a pass around the boards in the far corner during a Penguins’ power play, Austin laid a perfect saucer pass over the stick of a Knights defender right onto the blade of a teammate at the left point. After a slap shot through the legs of the netminder, the score was knotted, 1-1.
Another goal by the Knights later in the frame gave them a 2-1 advantage after one period. Like any good coach, Lemieux gave his team a little pep talk during the brief intermission.
Lemieux’s word certainly proved inspirational because two goals from the Penguins within the first 23 seconds of the second period gave Lemieux’s troops a 3-2 lead they would never relinquish.
“We didn’t get a good start so before the second period I just told them to wake up a little bit and get on the offense,” Lemieux said. “We got two quick goals within 20 seconds, so that was a good sign.”
Quiet and mild-mannered behind the bench, Lemieux did offer his two cents when the opportunity presented itself, especially when he felt a penalty or two should have been assessed from the officials.
“From time to time I get a little mad at the players or the officials, which I used to when I played but a lot less now,” Lemieux said. “It’s a lot more relaxing behind the bench.
“If you don’t have a fire, even at that level, you are in the wrong place. I still like the kids to compete.”
Midway through the second period Austin took a pass in the right faceoff circle during a two-on-one and fired a hard wrist shot off the mask of the Knights goaltender. When Austin came to the bench, his dad was there to offer an encouraging pat on the back.
“Good job, good job,” said Lemieux to his son.
Those words paid off as Austin would later score the final goal for the Penguins with 3:07 remaining in regulation. Left alone to the left of the cage, Austin’s wrist shot flew over a sprawled out netminder to give the Penguins a 7-2 lead. That goal elicited a smile from pops and a high-five when Austin got to the bench.
“I was in the right position,” said Austin after. “I’m an assist guy. I don’t score a lot of goals.”
While Austin doesn’t think of himself as a huge goal scorer, the elder Lemieux is happy with where his son’s development is at such a young age.
“He has good skills,” Lemieux said. “He is going to grow into his body and get stronger as we go along here. He is a pretty good puckhandler; he sees the ice pretty well.
“I think the most important part for him is to have some fun and learn the game along the way. That is all that matters for me.”