The Mario Lemieux comeback is old enough to buy a beer. You know, if an inanimate event could purchase alcohol. It was a magical night in Pittsburgh 21 years ago tonight where No. 66 came down from the rafters and Lemieux rejoined the NHL playing ranks after more than three years of retirement.
The excitement and buzz of Lemieux’s return was palpable all late fall/early winter in Pittsburgh that year. At first, it was sheer joy and giddiness that the big guy would return to play at all, giving a jolt to a team still kinda mired in the haziness of the recent bankruptcy. Questions then turned to just what would Lemieux have in the tank? He was 35 years old and hadn’t played in a while, would Mario still be Mario? How could he after all that time?
Any questions were quickly put to rest when Jaromir Jagr scored on the first shift, punching home a loose puck that Lemieux had put to the net. Mario would score a goal of his own in the second period and add another assist for a three-point night in his return, helping the Penguins to a 5-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Just like that, Lemieux was back and there was no doubt, he was still Mario.
That winter and spring Lemieux would put up a whopping 76 points (35G+43A) in 43 games. As a 35-year old. Who had not played NHL hockey in 44 months.
Please, go back and read that last paragraph again for impact, because this feat and the actual on-ice success Lemieux had seems to be overlooked or not really given all the credit it deserves.
To put this in perspective using Sidney Crosby’s timeline, this would be like if Sid walked away from the game before the 2019-20 season (at age 32), and came back in late 2022 and was basically playing like 2010-level Sidney Crosby. For Crosby, that doesn’t really seem too far-fetched to imagine, but just in general it’s a crazy scenario.
Lemieux’s points/game in 2000-01 was 1.77, far and away the best in the league. Only two players even had higher than 1.25. (Jagr at 1.49 and Colorado’s Joe Sakic at 1.44).
But it all started on that picture-esque snowy night shortly after Christmas, where a comeback for the ages was born. Mario Lemieux, back on the ice where he belonged, and didn’t miss a single beat to regain his place as perhaps the most dominant and uniquely skilled player the world has ever seen.