Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Say It Isn't So, Super Mario!

Yesterday, an icon of the NHL officially announced his retirement. Mario Lemieux, a player who single-handedly rescued the Pittsburgh Penguins from imminent death, and won them multiple Stanley Cups, finally revealed that his battered body would no longer allow him to continue to participate in the sport that he loves.

I am a Philadelphia Flyers fan, so it is often hard for me to say nice things about other hockey players (actually, that is not true, because I am a hockey fan, as well). However, there are a few athletes (in every sport) who deserve accolades from everybody. Lemieux is one of those.

I was lucky enough to have been able to see both Lemieux and Gretzky play – not that it was a joy to watch them, especially against the orange-and-black. Every time they were on the ice against the Flyers, I felt helpless. I knew that sooner or later they would find the twine. They were magicians with the puck, and when they came to Philly, it always felt like more than just a hockey game.

Lemieux was more of a thorn in the Flyers side (even though Gretzky helped defeat the Flyers in two Stanley cups), probably because the Flyers face him more often. From the start, the Flyers seemed to be Lemieux’s bitch – even in the early years, when the Flyers won most of the games.

Philly fans who get a bad rap (see any article about throwing snowballs at Santa, or Michael Irvin) actually probably showed Lemieux the most amount of respect – twice. The first time was when Mario came back from Hogkin’s Disease treatments – his first game was in Philly. Flyer fans, for a few minutes, became Penguins fans (actually, Lemieux fans), giving him a standing ovation for what seemed to be ever. He was visibly choked up (funny how we don’t hear about these things in the national media). The second time was when he announced his first retirement – again, it was against the Flyers, and again the fans showed their appreciation.

I will miss him, and I hope that the new stars of the NHL will reach those heights – a tall order for anybody.


Jeff said...

My favorite Mario Lemieux moment was lip-reading a Flyers-Pens playoff Game 7 faceoff, early in his career. Keith Acton jawed, Mario asked Acton how much money he made, Acton asked Mario how many rings he had ... Mario lost the faceoff and punched Acton, was sent to the box, and the Flyers scored.

Lemieux was a transcendent talent. Back then, Gretzky's Oilers were fast and skilled. Everyone else was big and slow. Lemieux was big AND fast AND skilled.

Teams couldn't skate with him, and beating him up didn't impact his play -- even though his back was so bad he couldn't tie his own skates. So other teams built smaller rinks and adopted the trapping defenses that changed hockey for over a decade. Much like how Bob Gibson forced baseball to lower the mound.

It's a shame that Lemieux lost so many games in his prime due to back/hip injuries and Hodgkin's.

Jagr, Lindros, Primeau, and all other big-and-skilled hockey players should be very thankful that Lemieux paved the way for their careers.

Reverse said...

I was actually lucky enough to be at the last Lemieux / Flyers game the first time he retired. Damn the man was fast on the ice.

Rev. Smokin Steve said...

Mario was simply amazing! There were times I thought he was better than Gretzky.