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Mario all smiles with Pens playing for Cup

| Sunday, May 31, 2009

DETROIT — There are a few gray hairs in the playoff beard that Mario Lemieux has grown, but the smile he's worn throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs is straight out of 1992.

That was the year Lemieux lifted the Stanley Cup for a second and final time in his Hall-of-Fame playing career. A life-sized, black-and-white photo duplication of that moment - Lemieux smiling for a crowd at old Chicago Stadium on June 1, 1992, as he skated solo on a victory lap with the Cup - has draped from several walls around various buildings in Hockeytown this weekend.

Super Mario would like to reintroduce himself to Lord Stanley's cherished chalice in the very near future.

"It would be a dream come true for me," Lemieux said Saturday a few hours before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final between his Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings. "Buying the team in (1999) and rebuilding it with the people we have in the organization — it should be a special moment if it ever happens."

If the Penguins win the Cup for a third time, Lemieux and fellow team majority co-owner Ron Burkle, a California billionaire known to prefer black polo shirts and little public attention, will have provided NHL commissioner Gary Bettman with a winning moment of his own.

Lemieux, one of this sport's greatest players, and Burkle have transformed the Penguins into a model franchise for troubled member clubs in non-traditional markets such as Phoenix and Columbus.

"It is probably fair to say that the Pittsburgh Penguins were in worse shape ... because they didn't have at the time the prospect of a new building," Bettman said yesterday. "Look where they are today. Look where we are today, getting ready to watch them (in a second consecutive Cup final).

"They are an elite franchise."

Bettman has spent the past several weeks battling public outcry from Canadians who enthusiastically back billionaire Jim Balsillie's attempt to purchase the in-bankruptcy Phoenix Coyotes and relocate them to Southern Ontario.

The situation is rich in irony for Lemieux., who said "it wouldn't be appropriate for (him) to comment."

The Coyotes are coached by his greatest rival, all-time NHL scoring leader Wayne Gretzky, also a part-owner.

Balsillie, of course, signed a letter of intent to purchase the Penguins in 2006, but the sale fell apart after the league imposed restrictions because of the city's then-unresolved arena situation.

With his third failed attempt to sell the Penguins — to recoup money owed him from a player-contract signed in 1993 — Lemieux was then at his lowest as an owner.

Four months later, his rising began when the Penguins and Pennsylvania public officials agreed to terms on funding for Consol Energy Center, which is set to open in 2010.

Lemieux was paid in full last year for millions owed to him.

Today, his ownership group is a month removed from a third-best league ownership rating by Sports Illustrated and the young star-studded Penguins — captain Sidney Crosby still lives in Lemieux's suburban guest house - are estimated by Forbes at $88 million more than their $107 million cost in 1999.

Lemieux, reveling in his team's on-ice success, is smiling more than he has in almost 20 years. He hardly seemed to mind fielding questions yesterday from reporters, though it was a rare interview opportunity since Lemieux retired in 2005.

He is cherishing the opportunity to share these moments with his four children, who were either not born or too young to watch him win three MVPs and six scoring titles as a player.

"It's fun for them ... to be around and to come on the road with us when they can and to be a part of it," Lemieux said. "It's important for me to have them with us as much as we can."

Lemieux revealed yesterday that he started working out two months ago. A third comeback as a player is as unlikely as his ownership group selling the Penguins.

Still, despite a chronic back condition that never has completely healed and two surgically-repaired hips, Lemieux, 44, is smiling like a man counting the days until he can take another larger-than-life picture.

"I was with him through the difficult bankruptcy period, and it was hard on him," Bettman said. "This is very special because he's had a new role in once again creating greatness in Pittsburgh.

"He's loving it."

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