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.”
Looking back on that night, Grealish remembers the revelation not registering with him. “It was late at night," he says, "I thought he meant play in an adult rec league or something.” At 35, already a Hall of Famer with two Stanley Cup rings and a surplus of scar tissue in his back, Lemieux had nothing left to prove. He had embraced retirement, indulging on cigars, fine wine and rare steaks. Even an appearance at the annual alumni game would take some serious effort.
“Well, good, you should get out there and get a little exercise,” Grealish responded at the time, chuckling.
“Look at me,” Lemieux said. “I am going to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins.”
The next morning, Lemieux called Grealish and asked if he was feeling alright.
“No,” Grealish said. “I can’t drink cognac anymore. I had the strangest dream last night: I dreamt you were coming back to play hockey for the Penguins.”
“It wasn’t the cognac,” Lemieux said. “I’m coming back.”
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Look too far afield of your flatscreen these days and things can get rather depressing. Over there, Carolina Panthers owner and "dour old white man" stock photography model Jerry Richardson is holding out his Hoover flags for corporate welfare while maintaining an operating profit of $78.7 million with a 2-14 team. And over there, a perpetually screw-faced Michael Jordan is crashing schoolyard H-O-R-S-E games in his bedazzled JNCO jeans and hand-checking PB&J sandwiches out of the hands of nine-year-olds in order to stoke his vindictive comeback fantasies.
Keep looking and you’ll find the Maloof Brothers taking a break from espousing the virtues of the Men’s Rights Movement to sad-eyed Vegas cocktail waitresses so they can get back to playing an unprecedented game of emotional blackmail with the cities of Sacramento and Seattle. From the NFL’s concussion-science filibustering to NCAA coaches sociopathically manhandling 19-year-old student athletes to the day-to-day mental grind of reading athletes’ Twitter feeds, Sports® in 2013 can be a real bummer.
And yet for all the megalomania and monies being yoinked from your paycheck to subsidize ‘Merican super-stadiums, there’s still guys like Lemieux, owner of the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins. In the 13 years since Lemieux took control of the team, it has become a model around the NHL for how a franchise should treat both its players and its fans (just take a gander at the unbridled joy on the face of winger Pascal Dupuis as the team delivered pizza to young fans waiting hours in line for Student Rush tickets.) Little wonder that sustained on-ice success eventually followed. However much the team's string of top draft picks helped reverse Pittsburgh's fortunes, it's impossible to overstate the impact of the ownership culture change. That stuff trickles down.
But that night at Grealish’s home in 2000, the Penguins were still fighting off the ghosts of the previous deadbeat ownership group. In a stunning move, Lemieux had saved the Penguins from bankruptcy and inevitable relocation by transferring the $32 million that the franchise owed him in deferred salary to a majority stake in a new ownership group. Even more surprising, particularly when viewed through the Jeffrey Loria lens, Lemieux made an unusual promise to the franchise’s long list of creditors when he took over as CEO: He would make sure the team paid back every cent, all $114 million — even to the unsecured creditors, who typically only get a fraction of what they’re owed in bankruptcy cases.
As CEO, Lemieux didn’t just need to stop the bleeding. He needed to put fans in the seats in the increasingly regionalized post-ESPN-divorce, post-Fox-glow-puck NHL era. The team had lost more than 3,000 season ticket holders after Lemieux’s 1997 retirement. With the perpetually brooding Jaromir Jagr planning his exit, Lemieux had to find a transcendent star that he could afford to pay while digging the team out of debt. So he found one, reflecting back at him in the bottom of his tumbler glass.
For weeks, Grealish and a few close friends kept his return a secret. When each business day concluded, Lemieux would change out of his suit and bike home from the office to get back in shape. To restore his skills, he hooked up with a former teammate, NHL enforcer-turned-personal trainer Jay Caufield, who put him through the wringer. "We started from scratch," Caufield says. "About five days into it we were on the ice working out, and it was a make-or-break day for him physically. There was a sense of, 'Am I going to go on with this?' It easily could have gone the other way, but Mario pushed through it. He got over the hump and never looked back."
Just two days after Christmas, barely a month after his talk with Grealish, Lemieux returned. Naturally, he notched a goal and two assists in the first game. He went on to grit his way through six seasons of excruciating back aches, joint pain and heart palpitations until his final retirement in 2006. Many wondered why Lemieux was torturing himself on mediocre teams with no chance of winning a third Stanley Cup. He said he did it in part so that his young son Austin would get to see him play. But if that was the case, he could’ve stopped after one season. There was, friends believe, another motivation: To keep fans coming through the gates while he pulled the drowning franchise out of the deep.
By 2005, just five years after he unretired, Lemieux had fulfilled his promise. The Penguins had paid back 100% of their debt. No creditor was too small, no bill too inconsequential. Local hotels, doctors, moving companies, architects and police departments were paid back in full. The owner of a mom-and-pop video store who had dubbed some VHS game tapes for the Penguins in the late ’90s was repaid $109 for his service. An $11.40 tab at a local Ace hardware store was settled. Payments were made even in years when the team wasn’t making any money.
Lemieux finally got his name etched on the Stanley Cup for the third time in 2009, this time as the owner of a team that has achieved admirable stability both on and off the ice. If the red-hot Penguins can get healthy, he might get a fourth ring this year. They certainly have the horses. When Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow, both captains of their respective teams, waived their no-trade clauses to come to the Penguins in March, many speculated that they did so to play alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
And that’s as good a reason as any. But if the Penguins make a deep run in the playoffs this season, you can trace the journey all the way back a night in 2000 when Grealish uncorked a bottle of cognac for his friend. That night, Lemieux decided to take control of his business, and, with the panache of Sinatra, do it his way. “There’s a first-class atmosphere here from top to bottom,” says Dupuis, who has been with the Pens since 2008. “It’s a special thing.” In a sports landscape pockmarked by welfare kings, fiscal hostage-takers and general financial legerdemain, Lemieux flies well under the radar as a quiet ambassador for an increasingly niche sport. If only the brigade of po-faced owners mugging in the limelight had an ounce of Lemieux’s dignity, it might make this supposed bargain of sports-as-escapism a lot more palatable.