I guess it shouldn't come as any surprise that the first subject of Pensburgh's ongoing offseason series known as Pens of the Past is none other than Super Mario himself. For the next 15 Mondays of the offseason I'll be debuting another Penguin of the past. Share your memories, favorite plays/youtube highlights or anything surrounding El Magnifique with the rest of the community.
Long before he was the savior of the franchise, Mario was one of the most talented and gifted, al beit unlucky players to ever play the game. Many have said, including Gordie Howe, that had Lemieux stayed healthy for his entire career he would have surpassed, shattered and set records across the board.
But that's not to say he didn't set his fair share of them regardless.
One glance at Mario's Junior League totals is enough to change the rhythm of your pulse. 562 points in 200 games, spanned over three seasons. 247 goals and 315 assists later, Mario would make his leap to the NHL in 1984.
Growing up in a baseball household, becoming a hockey fan was right up there with saying I wanted to pursue a career in painting. However, I quickly converted my family members one by one to the game and we've all since developed into hardcore fans.
My earliest memory of Lemieux fandom is laughable. One wall in my room was devoted to the man himself - a shrine if you will. Posters (including one labeled "Route 66" which showed Mario pasted over a winding road), framed 8x10s, plaques, pucks and newspaper clippings lined the wall and shelves in "Mario's Corner."
While too young to have seen it live, it doesn't make me any less of a fan to say that one of my favorite Mario accomplishments came before I was a fan. On New Year's Eve 1988 against the Devils, Mario scored what Pensburgh user Killer93 and I have both expressed is our favorite stat of all - 5 goals in 5 ways.
Similar to the Lemieux/Crosby comparison of today, a lot of people compared and contrasted Mario with Gretzky. Each great players in their own rite, there will forever be the debate of whether Mario could have surpassed Gretz in the record books on certain occasions. One of those occasions just happened to be the 92-93 season when Mario was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. He was 12 points behind Buffalo's Pat Lafontaine.
When Mario returned to play against the Flyers (a game I can proudly say I recorded on VHS) he wore a turtleneck sweater under his jersey to hide the radiation burns on his neck. I'll never forget watching that - and I'll also never forget that he recorded a goal and an assist that game. Before the season was over, he'd average nearly 2.6 points per game to finish 12 points ABOVE Lafontaine for yet another Art Ross Trophy. Incredible.
From there it was unfortunate, but Mario's health just went downhill. His back pains were a huge part in his retirement plans, and so it was announced Mario would not return to hockey. I remember being devastated hearing the news from my father that Mario would not be playing anymore. Like many kids around that time, similar to Brooklyn Dodgers fans who became Mets fans following the move to L.A., I switched my allegiance to Jaromir Jagr.
The retirement was short-lived, when in '95 Lemieux played yet again. But as much as his passion was there, his body just couldn't keep up with his drive. He'd try the same in 2000 until 2004, and once again in 2005 in efforts of driving more fans to the seats to support the bankrupting club. But doctors discovered a heart murmur and advised Lemieux that he should not play hockey.
Unfortunate as it was to see Mario struggle against his health conditions, I think it was by far one of the best examples of a role-model that you could get as a kid. When you talk about overcoming obstacles in your way or proving yourself against the odds, there is no better example than Lemieux. Top that off with his humanitarian efforts for cancer research and this guy's the real deal.
Be sure to check in next Monday for another installment of Pens of the Past.