Mario Lemieux is different. Eight years into covering his hockey club, that is the best I can come up.
He remains the largest larger-than-life presence in a region where the citizens have seen their share of athletic greatness on fields, courts and – certainly over the last 30 years – ice.
The thing about Lemieux is that he has not really been viewed as an athlete for two decades. Seriously, when was the last time somebody talked about something Lemieux did as a player… without also mentioning that he beat cancer, saved the Penguins or stayed to raise his family in Pittsburgh?
There is always all of that to go with any recollections of Lemieux’s on-ice achievements.
His legacy is not what he did as a player, even though he was perhaps the most gifted hockey player, one consistently in the conversations about the best hockey player.
No hockey player – maybe no athlete – ever has had what Lemieux has in this region, though.
Wayne Gretzky has statues of his likeness in Edmonton and Los Angeles.
Lemieux has one in Pittsburgh, but his name is also on 22 “playrooms” – areas in hospitals where children can hang out during hospital stays – throughout the region. The Mario Lemieux Foundation has awarded over $14 million in grants, mostly for cancer research, since its inception.
Lemieux and his wife, Nathalie, have personally donated over $600,000 to the foundation.
Lemieux fought that for years, agreeing only at the urging of his ownership group’s investors.
A couple of years ago, while working on an investigative piece into athletes’ charities with Tribune-Review colleague Carl Prine, I spent months digging deep into the dealings of Lemieux’s foundation.
What struck me was how small it is given how big it seems. What stayed with me is how absolutely committed Lemieux is to it.
Reporters go into investigative projects looking for something big and juicy, always because there is anecdotal evidence of something nefarious. Prine and I found some less than honorable dealings by several athletes’ charities, including those directly linked to Cal Ripken and Lance Armstrong.
Regarding Lemieux’s foundation, the best we could dig up was that it had accepted $500,000 in federal and state grants since 2004.
Again, it has handed out over $14 million in grants, with well over 90 percent of that money staying local.
For all the “C” words that have been attached to Lemieux – captain, cancer, Cup – maybe the one that should always come first is commitment.
He came. He stayed. He remains.
He is absolutely committed to doing things on his own terms.
He is the rare person to buy a professional team so he could make his money.
He is the rare celebrity who shines despite avoiding the spotlight.
The question I get most – from readers, from colleagues, from everybody – is, “What does Mario think about…?”
My answer is always the same.
I have no idea.
Mario Lemieux rarely talks about anything in public. He will not grant interviews Saturday after taking to the ice for his foundation’s charity hockey camp.
I hear stories all the time from Penguins executives about Lemieux’s dealing with team matters. Those stories are short, because Lemieux really doesn’t deal with team matters.
Last June, Ray Shero tried to present him with a detailed presentation that supported extending the contracts of Dan Bylsma and his assistants. Shero had wasted his time, because all Lemieux needed to hear was Shero saying he believed in the coaching staff.
Eight years into covering his hockey club, I have come to realize this about Lemieux:
He is different, not because of what he doesn’t do, but because of what he still does.
That, of course, is to defy convention.
>> Win No. 11 in a row at home was another case for Chris Kunitz to be at the Olympics: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/pensgalleries/5335554-74/penguins-rangers-season#axzz2pRqXONtn
>> Josh Yohe reports on the news Penguins, Tyler Pyatt: http://triblive.com/sports/penguins/5335560-74/penguins-pyatt-friday#axzz2pRqXONtn
>> The Team USA/Bobby Ryan saga, by Yohe: http://triblive.com/sports/nhl/5355123-74/ryan-burke-team#axzz2pRqXONtn
>> Finally – and MOST IMPORTANT – a happy 39th anniversary to Bob and Joanne Rossi. Theirs is the best story to which my name will ever be attached.
Be EXCELLENT to each other,