Lemieux makes debut in Penguins' blue uniform
Mario Lemieux should look super in blue Friday morning.
He and other former Penguins players will wear the popular baby blue alternate uniforms in the Winter Classic alumni game against one-time Washington Capitals players at Heinz Field.
Lemieux will wear five jerseys, each with a captain's "C" on the left shoulder. The jerseys will be auctioned at a later date, with proceeds going to his charitable foundation.
Penguins equipment manager Dan Heinze has worked to get Lemieux ready for the most anticipated dress rehearsal in NHL history — 10,000 tickets were sold for the alumni game, which will be followed Saturday by the Winter Classic game that is expected to draw 70,000 fans.
"We had to get his equipment back up to speed because he hasn't played for a while," Heinze said. "As a kid growing up in Johnstown and a huge Penguins fans, just to be around him is pretty neat. To get him ready for this game is something that I never imagined and won't forget."
Lemieux, the Penguins' all-time leading scorer and a Hockey Hall of Famer, will wear double-X Reebok hockey shorts that Heinze customized by removing pads to eliminate excess weight.
Heinze found an out-of-make CCM helmet — the style Lemieux wore during the 2005-06 season, which was his last in the NHL.
"When people heard Mario was playing, all of the companies wanted to send stuff in," Heinze said, adding that equipment-maker Warrior designed custom gloves.
Added Lemieux: "Dana's always been great with me ... the stuff he's got for me is a little bit lighter, it's helping me skate a little better."
The shorts, helmet and gloves are all navy blue. Lemieux wore them Tuesday during an afternoon scrimmage that included alumni-game teammates, current Penguins coaches, members of the hockey operations staff — and several youth players, notably Austin Lemieux.
The scrimmage lasted about 90 minutes. Lemieux needed less than 30 to score a couple of goals. He flashed occasional bursts throughout, but mostly appeared to glide — "effortlessly," according to alumni teammate Bob Errey — while stick-handling around lunging opponents in the offensive zone.
"It's been great, a lot of fun," Lemieux said of the multiple practice sessions in preparation for the alumni game.
He will coach Austin's youth team Thursday in a game played on the second outdoor rink across from Heinz field. He will call it an early night, as was the case during his playing days.
The players on the team he owns plan to hit the sheets early Thursday night, too. The alumni game starts at 9:30 a.m., and it is shaping up as a can't-miss event.
"Are you kidding me?" Penguins forward Max Talbot said. "To see Mario play again — for sure we want to be there. I hear he looks awesome."
He'll look different, having never worn a Penguins uniform that wasn't Pittsburgh's black-and-gold color scheme. Still, the Lemieux in blue will skate with the same approach he did as a player — to score goals.
"There are no short shifts," he said, smiling.
Mario Lemieux broke a sweat Tuesday afternoon during an alumni game scrimmage at Consol Energy Center — though he hardly looked to be working hard while scoring twice and setting up a couple of goals.
"He was always that way," former Lemieux linemate-turned-Penguins broadcaster Bob Errey said. "He makes it look effortless."
Lemieux, 45, smiled constantly during the hour-long session. He also flashed that famous arm pump after scoring.
He was joined by former Stanley Cup-winning teammates such as Errey, Phil Bourque, Rick Tocchet, Troy Loney, Jay Caufield and Bryan Trottier. Playing on his "white squad" was son Austin, whose shifts were about a minute shorter than those of his father.
"There are no short shifts," a winking Mario Lemieux said before the scrimmage, which served as a conditioning session for the Penguins-Capitals Winter Classic alumni game on the outdoor rink at Heinz Field.
After the scrimmage, Lemieux spoke exclusively with the Tribune-Review.
When you see the Winter Classic logo that incorporates one of Pittsburgh's bridges, what goes through your mind as the event approaches?
Well, I think about how we've come a long way since the (2004-05) lockout, and really pre-lockout. We've been given a chance to build a great organization here in Pittsburgh, to compete at the NHL level. We've tried to build something special. Of course, all those (high) draft picks helped. Certainly, that lottery pick (Sidney Crosby) changed the outlook of our franchise.
It's been fun for me to be a part of this the last few years, and this weekend should be really fun.
Errey said you've looked "effortless" during the alumni scrimmages. Does it feel that way?
(Laughs) Well, it's been fun skating with the boys again.
Are you having more fun coaching Austin's "96" team, especially with a game scheduled for the secondary outdoor rink this week?
We actually skated there (Monday), and it was a great time. That made us realize we should do a lot more with outdoor hockey. Maybe next year we can build something again that will be up for a couple of months, and all the kids around here can enjoy it.