Will Sidney Crosby Eclipse the Legend of Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh?
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PITTSBURGH — One Stanley Cup. One statue. Four hundred and forty five Mike Lange-isms.
On March 7 of last year, the Penguins unveiled “Le Magnifique” outside of the Consol Energy Center—a Bruce Wolfe-created statue of Mario Lemieux, inspired by a 1988 game in which Lemieux made New York Islanders defensemen Rich Pilon and Jeff Norton look statuesque in splitting them en route to a goal.
The statue officially puts Lemieux up 1-0 on Crosby in works of art in his name in Pittsburgh. In case Crosby wasn’t aware he still has a ways to go to eclipse the legend of Lemieux in this town, he gets it every time on his drive in to Consol from the suburb of Sewickley Heights.
Crosby is the biggest star in the NHL and has been since the ping-pong balls announced his arrival to Pittsburgh in 2005. That is likely to be the case until he retires—which should be a long time in coming with Crosby still just 26 years old. But he is unlikely to ever be the most beloved and biggest hockey star in Pittsburgh history.
Not only was Lemieux an incredible talent, generally considered one of the top five players of all time, but he was also the city’s savior of hockey. His was The Wish that Saved Pittsburgh. Lemieux’s dogged desire to keep the Penguins in town, when they were often pegged to be on the next U-Hauls to places such as Kansas City or Portland, paid off in the form of a sparkling new arena and, after Monday night’s loss at home to the Colorado Avalanche, 297 straight sellouts.
One could argue, however, that Crosby is the real savior of hockey in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins of 2003-04, the season before the NHL cancelled the 2004-05 campaign because of the lockout, were a mess. They finished 23-47-4, failing to qualify for the playoffs for the third straight year. Attendance at old, dumpy Pittsburgh Civic Arena averaged 11,877, lowest in the league. The franchise filed for bankruptcy protection twice in seven years.
And then came Crosby, and everything changed.
Three years after Crosby’s arrival, the Penguins were back in the Stanley Cup Final. Four years after, Crosby was lifting the Cup over his head and handing it over to team owner Lemieux, who hadn’t touched Lord Stanley’s silver punchbowl in 18 years.
So, the question is: Is it really that outrageous to wonder if Crosby some day could be better remembered in this town than Le Magnifique?
Maybe, said NBC and TSN hockey analyst Pierre McGuire, a former Penguins assistant coach. But not likely.
“Mario saved the franchise three times. Sid saved it once,” McGuire told Bleacher Report. “That’s two saves to go. But I don’t think he’ll have to save it again.”
Lemieux, McGuire said, "was larger than life.”
"Sidney would have to do a lot to usurp where Mario has been and is right now,” he said.
Lange, the legendary voice of the Penguins on TV and radio since 1974 (“Scratch my back with a hacksaw!”), called every one of Lemieux’s 690 career goals—an astonishing number when you realize that Lemieux missed three full seasons due to health issues—and large chunks of other seasons from various other ailments.
"Mario just preceded a lot of people, and his status just overshadowed everyone that came after. Jaromir Jagr was an incredible talent who could have been a superstar and a big name in a city forever, but Mario just preceded him," Lange said. "But Sidney at least did one smart thing: He went to live with Mario. I think that was a very smart thing to do. He’ll have his own legacy here. No question, I think he gets a statue here too."
The best avenue for Crosby to surpass Lemieux as a Penguin legend? Probably on one of those that line a parade route after Stanley Cup wins. Crosby has one Cup ring as a player; Lemieux has two.
At his age, with the kind of team the Penguins remain, it would be surprising if Crosby doesn’t get at least one more ring before his career is done.
Three, four, five rings—if Crosby can ever get that many, well maybe that would outshine Lemieux’s legend in pure bling.
Crosby wants as many rings as he can get, of course. But he knows if he doesn't stay healthy, the chances of that happening go down significantly. Which is why he has a more immediate goal for this season: to play all 82 games, which if it happens would be for the first time in his career.
The well-documented concussion problems that plagued recent parts of his career are over, and Crosby told reporters in the Penguins locker room on Monday he's feeling as good as he ever has physically.
Despite a pointless night Monday against Jean-Sebastien Giguere and the Avs in a 1-0 loss (the first time the Pens were shut out on Consol ice in a game Crosby played), Crosby’s 17 points in nine games led the league.
Will Crosby surpass Lemieux as the all-time greatest Penguin?
Asked Monday if he can get better still as a player, Crosby said, "I hope so. That’s the goal. I just try to always work on things I know I can do better and just try to kind of chip away at it.”
Somewhere in the future, a sculptor might start chipping away at a statue of Crosby to join Lemieux in standing sentry outside Pittsburgh’s hockey arena.
While it may be difficult for Crosby to ever achieve the same stature of Lemieux in Pittsburgh, one thing seems a safe bet: Like horseshoes and drive-in movies, coming close wouldn't be such a bad consolation prize at all.
Adrian Dater has written about the NHL for 18 years and covers the Avalanche for the Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter @Adater.
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