What if Mario Lemieux took LeBron James' career path and left the Penguins in his prime?

Justin K. Aller

The two different LeBron James free agency sagas got us thinking: what if Mario Lemieux elected to leave the Pittsburgh Penguins when he was at his prime? The answer is pretty bleak for the future of hockey in Pittsburgh.

Unless you've been living under a rock (and you haven't, since you're reading this on the internet right now) you probably know the biggest story in the sports world today: LeBron James has decided to go back to the Cleveland Cavaliers as a free agent. James will rejoin his initial NBA team after deserting them as a free agent four summers ago.

Since leaving Cleveland, it's been pretty much all gravy for LeBron: he led his new team, the Miami Heat, to four straight NBA Finals appearances in four seasons, won the NBA title in 2012 and 2013 and was named NBA Finals MVP for both championships. Throw in a gold medal in Beijing in 2012, countless other honors and accolades and James cemented his status as one of the best basketball players of all time in the course of the past four years.

As for the poor Cavaliers? They went from NBA Finalist with LeBron in 2010 to becoming an after-thought in the league again: going a combined 97-215 since their "King" left, finishing in the cellar every season and ended up winning the NBA draft lottery three out of the four years.

So why are you reading this basketball recap on a Pittsburgh Penguins blog? Good question.

A scary alt-reality

When thinking about the parallels of the situation: #1 player in his game, grappling whether or not to leave a humble rust-belt city without much of a history of success, the mind jumps back to what Mario Lemieux could have done over the course of his playing career.

Lemieux, as we all know, was and is everything to the Penguins franchise, eventually saving them from bankruptcy and moving out. His tireless efforts to wrangle funding out of politicians got the Penguins from arguably the worst venue in hockey to one of the best. Lemieux won championships for Pittsburgh as a player and as an owner- a feat no other professional athlete in modern history can boast. Mario did it all and he's the sole reason (or, maybe with respect to Sidney Crosby, the first sole reason) that Pittsburgh even has an NHL team.

There are similarities between Lemieux and James. Both were pegged as phenoms at a young age, both were no-brainer #1 overall draft choices in their respective leagues. They both made their professional debuts at the age of 18, under the height of enormous pressure and expectation. Of course, there are also differences too, like the sport, the era and the fact that LeBron was from Ohio and playing in Cleveland, and Lemieux of course was a French Canadien playing in Pittsburgh.

This alternate reality supposes that Lemieux willingly chose to leave his first professional home early in his career, like James did in 2010.

To mirror Lebron, Mario would have had to leave prior to winning a league title, so well before his sweet six-year, $42 million contract signed in 1992. (You know, the contract that the Penguins couldn't live up to when they plunged into bankruptcy, allowing Lemieux to become a major creditor of the team and set the stage for him, along with some help from his friend Ron Burkle to buy the team out-right. But that's a different story for a different day.)

The summer of 1990 is a good place to project a change for Lemieux. Be it by forcing a trade or setting himself up for free agency, it would have been hard to blame him for leaving. The Pens had a disappointing season in which they missed the playoffs by one point, Lemieux was a year off his sensational 199 point season in 1988-89, where he carried the Penguins to their first playoff appearance of his tenure. The path of least resistance surely would have been to get to a team in a bigger market, with more tradition and a bigger budget to attempt to compete for the Stanley Cup.

After all, Lemieux's biggest rival, Wayne Gretzky, reluctantly ended up agreeing to a trade from his first NHL team in the summer of 1988, going from a cash-poor team in the Edmonton Oilers to an aggressive and more stable club in Los Angeles. It wouldn't have been difficult for a big team like Toronto or Montreal or the New York Rangers to come-a-calling for Lemieux and swoop the big star out of the unglamorous market- much like James did in "taking his talents" to the illustrious "South Beach". Quite an upgrade over industrial Cleveland.

On the business side of things...

Fortunately for Cleveland- aided by healthy league television revenues- life without their star went on. It wasn't fun and they lost a ton of games, but their existence was just fine and they were able to compete and land expensive free agents (like giving Jarrett Jack $25 million over 4 years) in a futile effort to try and pick up the pieces.

Without trying to sound too dramatic- had Mario left Pittsburgh in 1990, he might not have had his original team to go back to, because the team as he knew it probably wouldn't have existed.

The same thing probably could not have happened in Pittsburgh in the early ‘90s without Lemieux. Sure, they would have shared the losing that Cleveland did, but not the financial stability. Without trying to sound too dramatic- had Mario left Pittsburgh in 1990, he might not have had his original team to go back to, because the team as he knew it probably wouldn't have existed.

The Penguins always were on shaky financial footing at best, playing in an old arena and without the benefit of much league support. The NHL was (and mostly still is) a gate-driven professional sports league. No paying fans, no team. Losing Lemieux likely would have dealt a terrible blow to what already was an organization that seemingly since inception was clinging desperately to keeping its head above water.

In that era of the mid 1990's the Hartford Whalers and Winnipeg Jets fell upon hard times, closed up shop and moved to Southern markets. It's not unreasonable to suppose that a struggling, financially depressed Lemieux-less Pittsburgh market would have been in that same awful boat. Maybe they would have survived a few years without their star in time for him to return, like LeBron did, though really it would have been a terrible business choice for Lemieux to ever come back to a small market, bad building and poor ownership of the Penguins. Once he walked out of Pittsburgh, unlike Lebron's situation, he would have been gone forever.

Back in reality, the Penguins had reckless enough management that elected to commit to pay players money they didn't have to keep Lemieux around as it was, clinging to their star player with everything possible. They knew that even if they had to go literally go bankrupt to keep Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, it would be better than the alternative of letting them slip away and then the team watch the team go under anyways.

On the ice/court side of things...

We know in reality Lemieux went to lead the Penguins to Stanley Cup championships immediately after this hypothetical, non-existent "Original Decision" in 1991 and 1992. He earned playoff MVP those two years, exactly like James did shortly after leaving his team. In this parallel, both players were pretty much in their athletic primes- old enough to be experienced, but young enough to be skilled and explosive. The apex of their playing days, or the "height of their powers" if you will.

Lemieux's new team probably would have been in a great position to win the Stanley Cup in 1991. Hockey is a team sport, but in that era a superstar like Lemieux could tip the scales. Mario scored a mind-boggling 44 points in 23 playoff games in 1991, one of the most impressive playoff performances ever seen.

It's quite feasible that should Lemieux have joined an above average team…that would have been the next potential dynasty instead of a Pittsburgh team that won 2 championships in a row and nearly won a third straight in 1993, before hitting some bad luck

There were no super-power teams in the NHL at that time. The Oilers dynasty was kaput and the Islander dynasty was long gone. It's quite feasible that should Lemieux have joined an above average team (like Chicago, Montreal or the New York Rangers) that would have been the next potential dynasty instead of a Pittsburgh team that won 2 championships in a row and nearly won a third straight in 1993, before hitting some bad luck.

Could Cleveland (NBA Finalists in 2010) have won a title over the course of 2010-14, should James have stayed? Obviously we'll never know for sure, but the argument can be made with how dominant James has been that with some tweaks to his supporting cast, he might have already brought a championship to Cleveland.

It is all well and good that James is the retuning hero now, but he also took four of his most prime athletic years away from his hometown team and gave MVP efforts to another club. When he left he was 26, now he's 30 and a different player. Still the best in the game, but his decision to leave undeniably cost the Cavaliers chances at glory.

Not what you do, how you do it

This whole thing isn't meant to simply be a critical "LeBron sucks" piece and it definitely is not a "hockey is more loyal/better than basketball" piece. It ultimately does point out that Mario Lemieux was more loyal than LeBron James., but it's a case study of what was similar career paths and the choices that two different stars (admittedly in two different situations and eras) ended up taking.

James isn't necessarily wrong for what he did. If anything this story, based heavily in supposition and hypotheticals, is like the story of any elite athlete that elects to change teams- it should be an immediate sign for Penguins fans to be so thankful of what they had (and have) in Mario Lemieux. An icon who stuck it out in his first city through thick and thin, and is possibly the rarest breed in all of professional sports: the one-town man. It's a very good thing, because for Pittsburgh hockey fans, the alternative history in a universe without Mario Lemieux is unthinkably scary.

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