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Lemieux the legend drops his guard

| Thursday, June 4, 2009

He sports a beard flecked with gray for charity rather than as a sign of solidarity with teammates in the Stanley Cup Final. He opts for jeans and a sports jacket in his luxury suite above the Mellon Arena ice instead of the business suit and tie usually worn in public. And he delivered one-liners to the news media during a recent chat.

The Mario Lemieux that only close friends know has emerged during the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs.

"It's almost like he's showing his true style," said player agent Pat Brisson, a longtime associate of the Penguins' majority owner.

"It's remarkable to see. He's content, he's happy, he's complete."

On his 25th anniversary as a Pittsburgher, Lemieux may be laying to rest some opinions that he is aloof.

In French-speaking Canada, the Lemieux name carried prestige even before he joined the National Hockey League as the Penguins' No. 1 choice and led the team to two championships.

"When French Canadians think of hockey, that name is the one that comes to mind," Penguins defenseman Philippe Boucher said.

For the rest of Canada, the royal name of hockey belonged to Wayne Gretzky — the NHL's all-time scorer whose high-profile life contrasted sharply with Lemieux, who prefers privacy to publicity.

New persona

Opinions about Lemieux began to change when he defeated Hodgkin's disease in 1993 and led the Canadians to a gold medal in the 2002 Olympic Games.

Canadian journalist Eric Duhatschek said his countrymen now view Lemieux as "1A" to Gretzky.

"Mario's always had this reputation, but I've always found him to be quite ... personal, charming and a well-rounded guy," said Duhatschek, a member of the Canadian Hockey Hall of Fame. "Everybody's getting to see that now."

Public officials in Pittsburgh saw that side of Lemieux during negotiations to build the $311 million Consol Energy Center, which is to open in fall 2010. The deal announced in April 2007 ended seven years of efforts by Lemieux to get a new home for the Penguins, who play in the league's oldest facility.

Even Lemieux's threat to sell the Penguins to an outsider who would move the franchise did not sour his relationship with fans, who continue to sell out Mellon Arena. He later acknowledged the threat was an empty one.

"In those meetings he'd go hours without speaking, but when he said something, everybody listened because it was a real contribution to the discussions," Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said. "Mario is very intelligent, and that's clear when you see him in those kinds of situations. He's also very funny, which I didn't really know until I met him."

During his recent media availability, Lemieux, long tortured with surgically repaired back and hips, said about his health: "I get up every day, take a couple of Advils, and I'm ready to go." He declined to be interviewed for this story.

"He's iconic here in so many ways," Ravenstahl said about his childhood sports hero.

Lemieux, 43, and wife Nathalie, 42 — along with daughters Lauren, 16, Stephanie, 14, and Alexa, 12, and son Austin, 13 — may be ready to join the Steelers' Rooneys as Pittsburgh's best-known sports families.

"Rightly so, too," Ravenstahl said. "Look at what he's done for hockey in Pittsburgh and the contributions he and his wife, through their foundation, have done for the region. They're making an impact that will last for a very long time."

The Mario Lemieux Foundation, formed during Lemieux's battle with Hodgkin's, has raised more than $9 million for medical research, foundation president Tom Grealish said.

The Penguins, whom Lemieux purchased in 1999, are 15 months from moving into their arena. Team officials are debating whether to add a statue of Lemieux outside to honor his incredible playing career. But Lemieux has yet to OK the idea.

A family tradition

Lemieux is thrilled three of his four children developed an affinity for hockey.

"They love the game," he said, joking that his children have "seen DVDs and tapes" of his Hall-of-Fame playing days.

Only one does not play hockey. Lemieux is an assistant coach for Austin's youth team and will become its head coach in fall.

In fact, Lemieux missed the Penguins' first-round clinching victory at Philadelphia in April because he was in Chicago for a tournament involving Austin's club. A Penguins official updated Lemieux with text messages, team President David Morehouse said.

Grealish said Lemieux treasures moments with Austin's team and will miss Stephanie when she leaves home to attend youth-hockey developmental school Shattuck-St. Mary's in Minnesota. She wants to hone her skills and follow his footsteps by playing for Canada in the Olympics.

"I'd have a hard time saying I've seen him visibly happier than the past few years," Penguins minority owner Tony Liberati said, citing the successful conclusion of the quest for an arena and the team's second trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

"But I'd say the biggest reason everybody is getting to see this side of him that his friends have always known existed -- the cool, relaxed and engaging Mario -- is because he's a father getting to see his children grow up. He's just enjoying the heck out of it."

Additional Information:

'66' by the numbers

A statistical look at Mario Lemieux's notable contributions to the Pittsburgh region:

2 - Stanley Cup championships as a player in 1991 and 1992

9 - Millions of dollars the Mario Lemieux Foundation has raised for cancer and neonatal research

16 - Hospital playrooms constructed for sick children

2 - Stanley Cup Final appearances as an owner, 2008 and 2009

30 - Years signed on lease for Consol Energy Center, to open in 2010

Source: Tribune-Review research

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