How Mario Lemieux Beat NHL Retirement To Save The Penguins

The Penguins captain thwarted retirement and his own broken body.

The Penguins captain thwarted retirement and his own broken body.

(Photo: Eliot J. Schechter / Getty Images | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013)

It was late in November of 2000, and Mario Lemieux had something to get off his chest.

Just three years into his retirement, and one year after he had become majority owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Lemieux was having a drink in the home of Tom Grealish, his longtime friend and then-executive director of the Mario Lemieux Foundation. The pair had just come back to Grealish’s place for a nightcap after dinner with friends, and Lemieux patiently sipped a glass of cognac while he waited for the remaining guests to leave.

After the last straggler had gone home and the two friends were alone, Lemieux casually peered into his glass of brandy and murmured, “Look, I want to tell you something.”

Grealish braced for a haymaker. Lemieux had fought and won a battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in the early ’90s. The franchise was still struggling to stay afloat in the NHL’s oldest venue, the Mellon Arena, and the hallways outside the team’s locker room were being co-opted by rats. Suitors from other cities were knocking on the door. A million possibilities rushed through Grealish’s mind, all bad.

Finally, Lemieux shrugged: “I … I think I’m going to play again.”

“You’re going to play what?” Grealish asked.

“I’m going to play hockey again.”

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