Throughout his career, hockey player Mario Lemieux has been known as one of the greats. Though he’s been retired for several years, he’s still a frequent feature of any list of the best hockey players of all time. I mean, the man has nicknames celebrating his skill, including Super Mario and Mario Le Magnifique. Whatever your opinion on the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team that was his home for his entire time in the NHL – and afterwards – it can’t be denied that he’s a skilled player. What, exactly made him so special? Well, despite his fairly large size (6’4 and about 200 pounds) he was always quick on the ice and was famous for fakes and dekes around defencemen. He’s had a stellar career despite often missing huge chunks of the season for illnesses and injuries that would have completely derailed the average player. Basically, Lemieux just has that little something extra, that quality that puts him up there with the greats like Wayne Gretzky.
But who is the man behind the legend? Sure, we know the on-ice Mario, but Lemieux has always been a fairly private guy. Unlike some of the modern NHL stars who are tabloid staples (ahem, Patrick Kane), he’s managed to fly under the radar when it comes to his personal life. There’s not much to gossip about when it comes to Lemieux, so journalists haven’t exactly spent hours digging up all the dirt from his past. However, who wouldn’t want to know more about one of the best players the NHL has seen? We all want to know what makes him tick, and what future NHL players can emulate in an attempt to achieve even a fraction of the success that Lemieux had. You may have dug up a few factoids if you’re a die-hard Mario Lemieux fan, but if you’re just a regular hockey lover, here are 15 things you may not have known about Mario Lemieux.
15 He Became One of the First Players in Pro Sports to Own the Team he Played For
From his rookie year to his first and second retirements, Lemieux spent his entire NHL career as a player with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They drafted him and they kept him year after year, despite him requiring significant time off for illnesses and injuries over the years. That type of loyalty requires a little something to be paid back, right? Well, that’s apparently what Lemieux thought – once he retired, he simply couldn’t get enough of those Penguins, and put up a significant amount of his cast to become a part owner. Now, he isn’t the first athlete ever to invest in a sports team by any means, but he is one of the select few to own a team that he previously played for (and, for a brief stretch after coming out of retirement, he was actually a player and part owner simultaneously!).
14 He Skated in the Hallways of his Home
Everyone has heard the tales of hockey parents driving their eager sons to games in the wee hours of the morning on weekends, a coffee in their hand. Hockey is undoubtedly an expensive and fairly involved sport, so when you’re younger, parental support is crucial to success. Lemieux knows this better than anyone. Not only did his father encourage him on the ice, he even made sure his son got in his practice when it was too dark for good outside play. How? Well, he simply packed snow in the Lemieux family house hallway so that his boy could practice skating indoors. Now that’s support!
13 He is the Youngest of Three Boys
What kind of family environment did superstar Mario Lemieux spring from? Well, let’s just say that the boys’ club of the change rooms was definitely not a strange environment for the French-Canadian superstar – he grew up with two brothers and Mario is actually the youngest. That means he grew up likely playing street hockey (and, of course, house hockey, thanks to those snow-packed hallways) with his older brothers. We wonder how soon it was before Super Mario’s super skills started to come forth. However, there’s no doubt that his older brothers had a huge influence on him. When speaking to hhof.com in 2002, Lemieux stated that “I leanred a lot just by watching [his brother, Alain] when I was young. I think every kid learns from his older brother.”
12 His Father was a Construction Worker
Many fathers are staples in the stands during every game and practice, rooting their sons on and giving them tips after the game. It’s safe to say that Lemieux’s father was there cheering on his son all through his rising career, likely including a few NHL games, but what was Papa Lemieux doing in his off time? Well, Mario originally comes from a fairly working class suburb in Quebec, so it may not come as a surprise to find out his father was a fairly blue collar man – a construction worker. His strong work ethic may very well be why Lemieux was always 100% dedicated, bouncing back unbelievably quickly from illnesses and injuries to rejoin his teammates.
11 English isn’t his First Language
While many of us watch hockey games with commenters making their remarks in English, it’s a commonly known fact that English definitely isn’t the first language for many NHL superstars. Sure, a huge majority of the players in the league come from Canada and the United States, but there are a fair amount of players from countries like Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, and more. While Lemieux was born in Canada, his Francophone roots mean that his first language was actually French. While you don’t need to speak the language to communicate on the ice, Lemieux started perfecting his English when he was in Pittsburgh with his team.
10 He Used to be a Heavy Smoker
We think of athletes as pinnacles of health and fitness – their pre-game meals often include lean meats and vegetables, and their training regime is gruelling to say the least. However, a young Lemieux made some less-than-healthy decisions back in the day. In 1987, the Pittsburgh Press published a short article that discussed smoking in the NHL and quoted several Pittsburgh players – Lemieux being one of them. A young 22 year old Lemieux was quoted saying that he picked up the bad habit in his junior hockey years, and by the time he decided to quit a few years later, he was often smoking as much as a pack a day. Luckily, he shook the habit to make sure he was in peak form for those long shifts.
9 He Met his Wife at a Wedding
It can be difficult to meet women when you’re a superstar athlete. After all, how do you find out who truly likes you and who is simply a puck bunny? Many hockey players who are in committed relationships end up meeting their partner before they enter the NHL and Mario Lemieux is no different – he ended up marrying his high school sweetheart and they’ve been together over a decade. However, did you know they met at a wedding? When both Mario and Nathalie were young, they attended the wedding of one of Lemieux’s cousins. So, next time you’re tempted to decline an invite to another awful family wedding, just remember – it could be where you meet your future partner!
8 In 2007, he was a Registered Republican
Every now and then, you’ll get an athlete who is extremely vocal and is quick to express his opinions on everything from current events to politics. However, on the whole, athletes know they’re constantly being watched by the public and they’ll generally keep anything that could be divisive or controversial to themselves. Basically, unless they come out and loudly support a political candidate, you may not know the political leanings of your favorite professional athletes. However, a report in 2007 let loose the fact that Mario Lemieux was a registered Republican – at least, in 2007 he was. Who would’ve guessed?
7 He was an NHL Superstar from his Very First Shift
It’s no secret that Lemieux was the number one pick in the 1984 NHL draft – pretty much everyone who cares about professional sports remembers the absolute first guy off the board every year and remembers whether they turn out to be a superstar or a complete bust. But did you know that the Penguins were probably pretty happy about their decision to draft Lemieux from the very first moment he stepped on the ice? That’s because in his Oct 11, 1984 NHL debut at Boston, Lemieux scored his first NHL goal on his very first shot on his very first shift. Now that’s the way to make a good first impression.
6 He Battled Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
While many athletes have the odd profession-related troubles – sprained groins, torn hamstrings, and the typical wear and tear that professional athletes’ bodies often face – they tend to step back if something truly serious happens. However, Lemieux wasn’t letting anything stop his athletic career – not even Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Lemieux was diagnosed with the serious illness not too long into his NHL career and missed a fair chunk of time to undergo radiation and battle the disease. He eventually returned, in record time, and continued to dominate the game for several years. Now that’s an inspirational story.
5 He was Roomies with Sidney Crosby
Everyone knows who Sidney Crosby is – he’s one of the biggest superstars in the NHL today and he plays for Lemieux’s team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, did you know that the two used to be roommates? Lemieux has a heart of gold and was known for often letting new Penguins crash at his pad while they settled in the area. However, Sidney Crosby was a bit different. The young superstar stayed with the Lemieux family when he first came to town and ended up staying for awhile… four years, to be exact. Lemieux has commented that after all those years, Crosby is more like a son than a player on the team he’s a part owner of.
4 He’s a Committed Family Man
Today’s NHL superstars are often in the tabloids for affairs or scandalous nights on the town. I mean, if you’re a young 20-something year old guy with stacks of cash to blow, why wouldn’t you want to let your hair down a little? Why wouldn’t you take advantage of all the eager puck bunnies who want to keep you company? However, Lemieux has never been part of that wild partying crew – he married his wife, Nathalie Asselin, in 1993, and the two have been together ever since. While other hockey stars were at the bar, Lemieux was taking Lamaze classes.
3 He Helped Save the Penguins
When you play for a team for years and years, you likely end up with a fairly strong connection to the organization. So, what would you do when something jeopardized the entire team? Well, you do whatever you can to save it – at least, that’s what Mario Lemieux did. Lemieux had a fair chunk of deferred payments owed to him for his years with the team and instead of blowing it on fancy sports cars and consumer goods, he took several of those millions and bought an equity stake in the Pittsburgh Penguins. He also found several new investors and pitched the team’s case in order to get some more funding and gather all the money that was needed. Now that’s team loyalty.
2 Talent on the Ice Runs in the Family
Usually, the younger brother is in the shadow of the talented older brother. Indeed, Mario Lemieux played hockey growing up with his brother, Alain, and when Alain made the NHL, young Mario likely thought he’d have some big shoes to fill. Little did he know that he’d become one of hockey’s biggest superstars and soon overtake his brother’s legacy. Alain Lemieux had a respectable career in the NHL, playing with the St. Louis Blues, Quebec Nordiques, and Pittsburgh Penguins for several years. However, there’s no doubt about who the more talented Lemieux brother is – sorry, Alain!
1 He Lives in Penguin Village
What is Penguin village, exactly? Well, while the Penguins may be the team of Pennsylvania metropolis Pittsburgh, Lemieux makes his home in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, a small village north of Pittsburgh. What makes Sewickley so special? Well, if you stop by a café in the village, you could run into Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, or any number of NHL superstars. The town is ultra-protective of its famous residents and even refuses to post Google street views. It seems that the Penguins get enough adrenaline and bustle on the ice – when it comes to their home lives, they prefer the idyllic village surroundings to the busy city.