If the old Yankee Stadium is ‘The House that Ruth Built,’ then Mellon Arena is ‘The House that Lemieux Built.’
|Mario Lemieux's crowning achievement was the two Stanley Cups he brought to the city of Pittsburgh. |
Many great players have called the Igloo home over the past 49 years, including National Hockey League Hall of Famers such as Ron Francis, Paul Coffey, Joe Mullen and Larry Murphy, to name a few. However, nobody can match the wizardry Mario Lemieux performed between 1984 and 2005.
“I always think of this as Mario’s place,” Sidney Crosby
said. “I think if you look at what he has done here for the city on so many nights here, I think it’s pretty safe to say this is his place.”
While we can all look back today on Lemieux’s legendary career and marvel at the numbers he posted – 690 goals (ninth all-time), 1,723 points (seventh all-time) and, most importantly, two Stanley Cup championships following the 1991 and ’92 seasons, those closest to Lemieux were able to appreciate his greatness from the minute he first stepped onto the then-Civic Arena ice during training camp in 1984.
“The first day he stepped onto the ice it was obvious he thought the game at a different level,” said Troy Loney, who was in his second season at the time of Lemieux’s debut. “It was really fun to be part of something where you were able to watch a player who you knew was going to be a great in the game develop.”
“I think him just coming onto the ice for the first time, it was just a special moment because everybody anticipated seeing this big, raw, skinny kid that everyone was talking about,” Hall of Fame broadcaster Mike Lange added. “Mario quickly made everyone believers. I think that is the thing that stands out to me more than anything else. Within the first year you knew you had somebody really different (than other players) and someone who was going to be special.”
Lemieux turned out to be more than special – he became the greatest talent to ever play the game.
He burst onto the scene with 43 goals and 100 points during his rookie season, earning rookie of the year honors, and beginning a stretch which would see him join Wayne Gretzky as the only players in NHL history to record 100 or more points in each of their first five seasons.
It didn’t take Lemieux long to earn the hearts of the Penguins faithful.
“When you came on the ice you knew when he was on the ice because the place would erupt,” Rob Brown said. “He had an incredible bond here in Pittsburgh. He was hockey. He was the face of this franchise and still is. If we went out to a restaurant, you knew Mario was there because people love the guy – and rightfully so. He turned this franchise around.”
As Lemieux turned the Penguins from bottom feeders to the league’s elite, he did so with an impeccable ability to rise to the occasion when the Penguins needed him the most.
Who will ever forget his series-defining goal against the North Stars in the 1991 Stanley Cup Final when he split Minnesota blueliners Neil Wilkinson and Shawn Chambers before tossing a backhander behind Jon Casey as he spun to the ice? That goal will be replayed on highlight reels as long as hockey is played.
During Game 2 of the 1992 Final Lemieux allowed the Penguins to emerge victorious in what most hockey experts consider the greatest game ever played at Mellon Arena when he threw the rebound of a Larry Murphy shot behind Chicago’s Ed Belfour with just 12.5 seconds remaining in regulation. That tally allowed the Penguins to complete a 5-4 comeback, fueling Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup repeat.
“He just had that knack to score those big goals,” Loney said. “It was a joy to be on the ice and see it up close. You came to expect it from him.”
Not only did the Penguins learn to expect the dramatic from Lemieux, they also had the chance to witness firsthand his uncanny ability to make all the players around him that much better. Nobody knows that better than Rob Brown, who scored 49 goals and 115 points playing alongside Lemieux in 1988-89, and is still considered the one player who thought the game on the same rarified level Lemieux did.
“He can make anyone look good,” Brown said. “When you play on a line with superstars, you have to be able to think the way that they do. Mario saw the game differently than anyone else. He saw plays that were about to happen and potential passes before anyone else. I think you have to get into their mind and play the way they think. Obviously you don’t have the skill level to do it, but if you have the mental capacity to see what he sees, that makes it much easier.
“You just had to complement his game, and that is what I tried to do. One of the first things he said to me was get open and have your stick on the ice at all times. It may not look like you are going to get a pass, but trust me, you will. It was so true. There would be five guys between us and he would float a pass through skates and over sticks and it would land flat on my stick every time. It was my job to put it into an empty net.”
|Mario Lemieux scored some of the most dramatic goals of his caeer at the then-Civic Arena during the 1991 and '92 postseasons. |
Goals and assists were Lemieux’s forte, but in an ironic twist it’s a save that will be Lemieux’s lasting legacy in Pittsburgh.
We all forget how close the Penguins were to leaving the city after the team went bankrupt in 1998. Nobody was willing to step forward and help ease the team’s credit issues when Lemieux, who was just one year into his first retirement, stepped forward. Not only did he purchase the team and keep it in Pittsburgh, he worked hard over the next 10 years to ensure a new state-of-the-art facility for the Penguins – the Consol Energy Center.
“Mario saved this franchise as a player and then he saved it as an owner,” Wendell Young said. “Tell me somebody else who has done that in sports. There is no one. It’s unfathomable to think there almost wasn’t a team here in Pittsburgh, but there were a few times when it was close. The same guy was responsible for resurrecting the team and keeping it here.”
Leave it to Lange, who had the privilege to call nearly every Lemieux goal at Mellon Arena, to best put his accomplishments into the proper context.
“What can you say about the guy?” Lange said. “What other player has accomplished those numbers in the game of hockey except Wayne Gretzky. For the amount of time that he played, and being hurt for a lot of that time, his numbers are mind-boggling. For me, he will always be the best player to ever play. I think he is that good.”