Growing up there were four superstars in the four major sports I came to admire and love the most. In basketball there was Michael Jordan, football had Emmitt Smith, baseball had Frank Thomas, and hockey had Mario Lemieux.
On Tuesday Mario Lemieux announced his retirement for the second and probably last time.
Even if you never watched or cared for hockey, you knew while watching Super Mario that you were watching greatness. He had a certain aura the great ones carry with them: the aura of confidence and competitiveness and the need to win at any cost.
I have never seen anyone control the puck like Lemieux, not even Gretzky or Orr. You knew when he touched the puck something magical was going to happen.
When I was a little kid, I thought he was going to score every time he touched the puck in his zone. After he came back from his first retirement, he was still the dominant player and had the same magic he had before. He carried a so-so team to the conference finals and finished second in the Hart Memorial Trophy voting for most valuable player despite playing only for a half a season.
Lemieux had sadly perhaps one of the great “what if” career in sports. Hodgkin’s Disease, a bad back and an early retirement did not allow him to put up the same career numbers as Gretzky did. He lost nearly two years of his prime because of the disease. He lost another three years because of retirement and two more late in his career because of a bad back.
Great athletes should not be judge on what could have been, but what they did. You can’t help to think Lemieux might have been the greatest player in NHL history if he were healthier. Lemieux came into the NHL when Wayne Gretzky was dominating and breaking records. He was hyped as the next legend. They gave him 66 so he would remind people of Gretzky’s 99. Unlike so many other hyped-up sports prodigies, Lemieux was everything people expected and more.
The NHL once could rightfully be called the fourth major sport. Lemieux along with Gretzky helped make the sport popular and relevant. Sadly the NHL is barely relevant today and looking for a new identity.
In the past few years, the great athletes who I grew up with have been retiring. The great athletes who had dominated the 1990s are now walking into the sunset. I have great memories of all those athletes, but Lemieux has a special place for me. He was the player who made me care for hockey. His dominance and control of the game reminded me of Michael Jordan. Hopefully Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin can dominate the game like Lemieux, inspire a new generation of fans and make the NHL relevant again.
Goodbye Super Mario. You were one of the greatest.