NHL

The Penguins’ Mario Lemieux Played for the Team After Buying It Out of Bankruptcy

It’s not often that a mountain of a hockey player can also skate with the skill of Pittsburgh Penguins hero Mario Lemieux. His fakes befuddled even the most lithe defenseman; his shocking speed and control made his opponents regularly freeze, unable to respond to the graceful hulk coming their way.

That’s just one piece of a larger legend surrounding Lemieux, who achieved something few athletes could dream of: He bought the very team he played for. Declining to reinvent himself as a businessman, he chose to strap on his skates again. Lemieux emerged from semi-retirement to play with his own employees for years — and he looked good doing it.

How Mario Lemieux earned his way into the Hockey Hall of Fame

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From 1984 to 1997 — a period overlapping with one Wayne Gretzky — Lemieux was one of the greatest players in the NHL. The Pittsburgh Penguins picked him first overall, and he spent his entire career there, including in ways the ownership at the time couldn’t have imagined. This first period of his career, according to Legends of Hockey, was enough to earn him Hall of Fame honors, defined by an iconic 1988-89 season.

That season, he totaled 114 assists and 85 goals, for 199 points, Hockey Reference reports. It was as close as anyone ever came to Gretzky’s mammoth 200+ point seasons. And he did it all with a team otherwise defined by underperformance. It took Lemieux’s 1991 injury to force the team to invest in more players capable of making a serious push for the Stanley Cup.

He managed these achievements with a flagging franchise. His career was marred by injuries, many of which weren’t known to fans until well after the fact. That included lengthy absences due to cancer treatments, Sports Illustrated reports. He scored a goal on the same day as his final radiation treatment in 1993.

Lemieux became a Hall of Famer but it wasn’t enough

The Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux waits for action to begin
Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins during a game | Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

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Lemieux’s resume is one defined by individual stats. The Penguins as an organization were in dire straits, and preparing to file for bankruptcy. Lemieux, unable to walk away from the game despite his Hall of Fame status, swooped in. Long critical of the organization’s management, he tapped investor friend Ronald Burkle to explore buying the team himself.

He bought a majority ownership stake, alongside an undisclosed percentage going to Burkle. Then, the Hall of Famer made a shocking announcement, according to Sports Illustrated. He returned to active play, despite his injuries and ongoing struggles with cancer. In the opening game of the 2000 NHL season, he went on a tear. The ensuing three goal performance immediately silenced his doubters.

Mario Lemieux’s legendary run as a player/owner of the Penguins

In his final season, reports ESPN, he was visibly declining. But greatness even marked Lemieux’s second act. The numbers that led him to give up on the game as a player, once and for all, involved 22 points in 26 games in 2006. That was more than acceptable for an NHL forward during that era. But Lemieux decided it was a sign that he should hang up his skates for good. He returned nearly in top form; his decline was apparent, if not rapid.

Sportsnet reports that Lemieux has poked at the idea of selling the team to focus on his charity work. But after getting close in 2016, he walked away from a deal-in-progress. Burkle openly dashed another deal, citing his emotional connection to the franchise. For now, the Penguins remain the hockey legend’s primary focus in life, just like they were in 1984.