Mario Lemieux Committed To Winning In Pittsburgh

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Mario Lemieux Committed To Winning In Pittsburgh
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Winning starts at the top. Good decisions from ownership bring in the best people for front office positions and that produces a quality team. One of Mario Lemieux's goals when he bought the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team was bringing the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh.  Mission Accomplished!

Mario Lemieux is one of the greatest hockey players ever. Mario overcame back problems, cancer and a three year retirement to come back and play at a very high level in the NHL.

The NHL Hall of Fame waived the three-year waiting period to unanimously elect Mario into the Hall on Nov. 17, 1997.

Mario was not done.

After the Penguins declared bankruptcy in the late 90's, Mario headed an ownership group that bought out the bankrupt Penguins.  

The 2000-01 season was one of the Penguins most exciting seasons. Although it did not produce the cup. That year saw the return of Mario, as a player, and the Penguins went all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.  They lost to the Devils in 5 games. It was a great ride for Penguin fans who got to see Mario do the unthinkable again. 

After being retired for three years, Mario came back in 00-01 to score 76 points in 43 regular season games. That is  1.77 points per game. In the playoffs he had 18 points in 17 games.  A point a game in the playoffs. Pretty good for a guy that hadn't played for three years.  Thanks Mario!

The next three years would not be so productive as the Penguins not only did not make the playoffs but were in the basement of the NHL. Financially, the team was hurting and had to unload quality players with hefty contracts.  The dark period of Pittsburgh Penguin hockey.

The '04-05 season was sacrificed for a lockout. 

But the '05-06 season brought new life to Pittsburgh having won a lottery for the first pick in the draft. That brought Sidney Crosby to the Penguins.  Mario and GM Craig Patrick made several moves to bring in experienced players that they felt would give Pittsburgh a chance to make a run at the Playoffs. The team never came together and Lemieux had to retire again after a heart condition was diagnosed. The team went on to finish in last place again.

Mario had been involved in negotiations for a new arena deal on and off for years.  Frustrated and/or bluffing during the '06-07 season, Mario had the team up for sale and was also entertaining offers to relocate the team. It was a very uncertain time for Penguin fans that, on one hand, loved everything Mario had done for the team. But on the other were preparing for the anger that would come if he chose to take the club to another city. Really with the talent and potential the team had, who could blame him. After all, the Steelers and Pirates got new homes.

In March of 2007, at a packed Mellon Arena, Mario announced that a deal had been reached for a new arena and the Penguins were staying in Pittsburgh. Many fans were as proud of Super Mario on this night as they were of his magic on the ice. After that day many signs would say "Mario must have once been a goalie because he made a great save with the Penguins."

Never has a player become the majority owner of his club. Never has a player done so much for his franchise and the city as Mario has done for the city of Pittsburgh.  Thanks, Mario.

Also, around this time the Penguins said "good-bye" and "thank-you" to long time GMCraig Patrick. He would be replaced by Ray Shero. Many players drafted by Patrick, would go on to propel the Penguin' success. Nobody knew what impact Ray Shero would have on the franchise, but they were going to find out.

The '06-07 season would see the Penguins make the playoffs only to get ousted by the Senators in the first round. They got to feel what it was like to play "playoff hockey" in the NHL and the experience would serve them well.

At the '07-08 season's trade deadline GM Ray Shero brought in the highly sought after forward, Marian Hossa. It was obvious that Mario and co-owner Ron Burkle were not waiting, the time to win was now!

The Penguins went on to more or less dominate through the East to meet the Detroit Redwings in the Stanley Cup Final. The Red Wings were too tough and won the Stanley cup in six games. Still, as fans, overall we were getting our money's worth. 

After just four losing seasons and a lockout the Penguins had made it to the Stanley Cup final. They were just two wins from the ultimate prize. 

Under the ownership of Mario Lemieux, the organization was doing all the right things to put a winning team on the ice. A talented, gritty team that proved it could win in the NHL Playoffs, perhaps the most grueling playoffs of any sport.

Pittsburgh came into the '08-09 season with GM Ray Shero unable to sign star forward, Marian Hossa. Shero did bring in free agents Miraslav Satan and Ruslan Fedatenko.  They were also able to sign tough defenseman Brooks Orpik to a long term contract.

With about thirty games left in the season the Penguins were not in a position to make the playoffs. Mario and Ray Shero made a coaching change. They replaced head coach Michael Therien with Dan Bylsma from the AHL minor league Penguins.

That move along with some late season trades that brought Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams to the Penguins all paid off. The Penguins, of course, won the Stanley Cup, beating the defending champion Detroit Redwings. But not without the steadying hand and inspirational words from the owner, Mario Lemieux.

After Detroit beat the Penguins 5-0 in Game 5, Mario was waiting in the locker-room to tell the players it was going to be all right.  He said something to the effect of, "We will win Game 6 at home and come back to Detroit and win the Cup."

After winning Game 7 for the Stanley Cup, many of the Penguin players referred back to a text message they received from Mario before the game.  He had made an impact.

Thanks, Mario!

Looking forward to next year!

Winning starts at the top and we are very fortunate to have ownership in Pittsburgh like the Rooney's with the Steelers and Mario and Ron Burkle with the Penguins.

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