Mario Lemieux retired from the NHL on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, what two better players to pass his torch to than Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin as Crosby’s Penguins battle Ovechkin’s Capitals at 7:30 p.m. at Mellon Arena.
“I realize that the new NHL is really for the young guys. I think we have a lot of young guys in the league who are dominating,” Lemieux said. “We have a few in Pittsburgh, too. These young guys are the future of the NHL and look forward to next several years watching these guys play.”
Lemieux’s retirement, as well as the departures of hockey greats like Brett Hull, Mark Messier, Patrick Roy and Wayne Gretzky over the past few years, signifies the beginning of a new era in the NHL. Superstar rookies Crosby, who is 18, and the 20-year-old Ovechkin are two players among several talented youngsters who will give the NHL its new identity for the next couple decades.
“Right after the lockout, a lot of young players came into the league and they are having a lot of success, so it’s a new generation,” said Penguins rookie forward Michel Ouellet, who is part of the NHL’s talented young core. “That’s the way it is and you need younger guys to come in after those guys retired.”
Ouellet and Crosby join a multitude of Penguins youngsters like Marc-Andre Fleury, Erik Christensen, Max Talbot, Colby Armstrong, Shane Endicott, Ryan Whitney and Matt Murley who have benefited from Lemieux’s leadership and presence.
“He has been doing a lot for the league, but now his health won’t let him play again,” Ouellet said. “He’s done a lot for the young players. We learned a lot from him when he was around on the ice, so we’re going to miss him a lot, for sure.”
Crosby, hailed as the best prospect to enter the NHL since Lemieux in 1984, had the ultimate mentor in Super Mario.
“Being young coming in here, obviously he was in a similar situation coming in, he’s faces a lot of adversity and been able to rise through it. I think that just being around him and learning through his experiences have helped me,” said Crosby, who lives with the Lemieux family. “It’s tough to see him leave. He had such a great impact on the game. He really has a passion for the game. It’s never easy to go and I am 18 years old, but that’s something I can still feel for that and realize that you play hockey for so long and then, all of a sudden, one day you have to stop. It’s something that can’t be easy at all.
“It’s really tough. You never like to see anyone have to step away from a game they love,” he continued. “I am glad I got a chance to know him so well. He really is a great person and has a real passion for the game. He’s put so much into it. At least he’s going away on his own terms.”
Even though the Penguins have struggled this season, the future is definitely bright with the abundance of talent throughout the organization.
“I am really excited about the team and the direction we’re going,” Lemieux said. “This team is going to be a great team for many years to come.”
Lemieux’s departure leaves Crosby as the new face of the Penguins.
“I don’t know. I don’t think that’s going across my mind too much,” Crosby said. “We have a lot of young guys and we’re going to need to build something. It’s been tough the last stretch here, but we have a great group of guys and we’re working hard. I think it’s going to turn around eventually. We’re all going to have to step up and learn together.”
In addition, Crosby, already an alternate captain, seems a natural fit to assume Lemieux’s role as the Penguins’ leader on and off the ice.
“I don’t think I will ever be able to do the job that he did, but if I can even come close to that, I think it will be all right,” Crosby said. “He was an amazing player and an amazing person. When I came in here, it’s tough to know what to expect living with someone I grew up watching and idolizing, but he’s helped me so much. Hopefully, I will continue on from now.”
Lemieux has some advice for the talented young players in Pittsburgh and throughout the NHL.
“All I can say to the young players is, ‘Enjoy every moment of it. Your career goes by very quickly. It’s a great game. You guys are all very special to be in the NHL.’”