Pittsburgh Penguins

ON THIS DATE: December 11, 2000, Mario Lemieux announces return to NHL

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Mario Lemieux became the first owner-player on his own team in National Hockey League history when he announced his return to the game on Dec. 11, 2000. Sixteen days later, “Super Mario” took to the ice amid a standing ovation and finished the game with a goal and two assists.

The Montreal native was drafted by the Penguins in 1984, but tensions were high due to deadlocked contract negotiations -- Lemieux did not shake general manager Eddie Johnston’s hand or put on the Penguins jersey.

Once the contract was hammered out, Lemieux’s transformation of the team was immediate. His first shot on his first NHL shift was his first NHL goal. Scoring records tumbled in his wake as he racked up statistics that ranked him among the greatest hockey players ever.

The team won back-to-back Stanley Cups in the 1991 and 1992 seasons. The road from laughing-stock team to champions was largely attributable to Lemieux, and the team’s chances at a three-peat were shattered when he announced in early 1993 that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

As he battled cancer, he founded the Mario Lemieux Foundation, which has raised and donated more than $30 million to cancer research and patient care initiatives since its inception.

After a season and a half off, Lemieux returned to the Penguins on the day he completed his last radiation treatment, flying straight to Philadelphia where he received a standing ovation from the usually hostile Flyers’ fans when he took the ice.

Penguins coach Eddie Johnston was asked what Lemieux’s return meant to the team. He looked skyward, made the sign of the cross and said, “I thank God for him every day.”

Chronic injuries and back pain took a physical toll on him and, while he continued to put up statistics that were enviable, lingering fatigue prompted him to retire at the end of the 1996-1997 season.

In 1997, he was unanimously inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, foregoing the usual three-year waiting period after retirement.

The number 66 was retired and raised the rafters of Mellon Arena that November, but Lemieux’s involvement with the team was just beginning.

By 1999, Lemieux was the largest creditor after management encouraged players to defer their salaries for most of the decade. He proposed converting his deferred compensation (totaling an estimated $30 million) to equity in a bid to buy the team and prevent it from leaving Pittsburgh. The courts and NHL approved the deal, and he saved the team from bankruptcy.

Soon after the deal was complete, Lemieux began discussions to replace the Civic Arena.

Restless after three years in retirement, Lemieux called a press conference on Dec. 11, 2000 to announce he was returning to the ice as a player. He had reportedly been working out for several months prior to the announcement and made his return to the ice on Dec. 27, 2000.

Before the game began, the banner bearing the number 66 was lowered from the ceiling. When the puck dropped, the now 35-year-old Lemieux went to work, and 33 seconds later assisted in his first goal. Later in the game he scored his first goal, taking a pass from team captain Jaromir Jagr, and then assisted on a third goal.

Lemieux didn’t just reinvigorate the Penguins, he infused the entire league with an energy and electricity that had been missing. The following seasons saw him leading the NHL in scoring until the NHL lockout canceled the 2004-2005 season.

The 2005 National Hockey League Entry Draft started with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ choice of top prospect Sidney Crosby as the first overall pick.

Lemieux welcomed Crosby to the team by inviting the 18-year-old to live in his family home, and Crosby accepted. The duo carpooled to practice and grew close as Lemieux mentored Crosby.

The unconventional arrangement of a living hockey legend setting up house with his protégé and his team’s new franchise player was a comfortable one, and Crosby would continue to live with the family for several years.

Crosby set franchise records in assists and points for a rookie (passing Lemieux in both categories) and became the youngest player in NHL history to reach 100 points in a season. With the torch effectively passed from one generation to another, Lemieux retired back to his ownership duties at the age of 40, after making the announcement on Jan. 24, 2006.

The $321 million Consol Energy Center, later renamed PPG Paints Arena, opened on Aug. 28, 2010, and became home ice for even more Penguin victories, in large part to Lemieux’s instrumental role in the negotiations, which also guaranteed the team would stay in Pittsburgh for at least 30 years.

The Penguins have had winning seasons and have made the playoffs every year since Crosby’s second season, with three Stanley Cup victories (2009, 2016, and 2017), led by Crosby as team captain. Lemieux, of course, has his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup in five places, two as a player and three as team owner, making him the first person to win both as a player and owner.