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Statue outside Penguins' Consol home honors Lemieux

| Thursday, March 8, 2012

Jill Balmer was one of about 6,000 fans who blanketed closed-down Centre Avenue on Wednesday. Like everyone else, she was there to see one man: Penguins icon Mario Lemieux.

However, the 4,700-pound bronze Lemieux statue unveiled outside the Trib Total Media gate at Consol Energy Center also featured two others: former New York Islanders defenders Rich Pilon and Jeff Norton.

"I'm like a lot of people and probably would have rather seen (Lemieux) by himself," said Balmer, 65, of Speers. "But that was his signature, making defensemen look silly.

"It sums up what he did."

The Lemieux statue, named "Le Magnifique," provided a rare public opportunity to celebrate the Hockey Hall of Famer that longtime Penguins play-by-play announcer Mike Lange said "bought the team, owns the team, is the team."

Master sculptor Bruce Wolfe crafted the statue in Northern California. He received an assist from University of California, Berkeley art director Chris Linden, who coincidentally coached youth hockey with the Pittsburgh Hornets and at Bishop Canevin High School from 2005-08.

Lemieux did not acquiesce to the idea until fellow Penguins majority co-owner Ron Burkle explained it was going to happen, team CEO David Morehouse said during the unveiling.

Joined by family members, Lemieux thanked Burkle for catching an overnight flight from Paris.

"I was nervous this morning," Lemieux said.

Lemieux, 46, had not viewed the statue until a tarp that covered it was removed about 12:30 p.m. His reaction was a deep breath, followed by a smile, hugs and kisses with his wife and their four children, then a thumbs up to Wolfe.

"Fear is a very helpful thing," Wolfe said of his overriding thought during the 15-month process. "So many people who were behind this wanted to make it right."

The large crowd was proof of Lemieux's fame. Lines were 10-people deep and stretched to the intersection of Centre Avenue and Washington Place. Tim and Terilynn Benoit traveled on Monday from St. John's, Newfoundland, for the ceremony.

Each of Consol Energy Center's founding partners, including Trib Total Media, contributed to the cost of the statue, which was not divulged. Including individual donations, more than 25 companies/people paid for the statue, including members of the Lemieux-Burkle ownership group.

Dignitaries who attended the ceremony included NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, former Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, more than two dozen former Lemieux teammates and every member of the Penguins staff, including current players and coaches.

The Penguins played the Toronto Maple Leafs at home last night, but the team was eager to view the statue of the man whom Bettman credited with "saving hockey in Pittsburgh three times."

Lemieux and Burkle led a group that purchased the team out of bankruptcy in September 1999.

Russian-born center Evgeni Malkin, who is trying to join Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr as the third Penguin to win multiple scoring championships, said he did not "see a lot" of video footage of the young Lemieux depicted in the statue.

"I know he used a big stick, not like me," Malkin said. "And he could fly, right?"

Paul Bereswill snapped the photo that inspired the statue. The photo accompanied a story in a February 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated comparing Lemieux to Wayne Gretzky, at that time considered the finest hockey player — at least by fans outside of Pittsburgh.

The Penguins paid for Bereswill's travel arrangements from Uniondale, N.Y.

"I was excited about (the photo) at the time," said Bereswill, 62. "I'm glad they found this and said this is him because it really is: splitting the defense like that, his feet tied up by the defensemen. ... I knew this was one of those definitive shots."

Lemieux said he had a copy of Bereswill's picture at home and that he reviewed video of the goal last week.

The 1988-89 season was Lemieux's finest and the beginning of his taking the torch from Gretzky. Lemieux scored 85 goals and recorded 199 points in 76 games. The Penguins reached the playoffs for the first time in his career, which began in 1984.

He finished his career with 690 goals and 1,723 points in 915 games, winning three MVPs, six scoring titles, an Olympic gold medal and the Stanley Cup twice.

Most noteworthy, Bettman said, is that Lemieux played only for the Penguins.

Ed Johnston said he always believed Lemieux was "statue material." That is why Johnston said he offered to resign as Penguins general manager in 1984 if then-owner Edward DeBartolo Sr. ordered him to accept an offer from the Philadelphia Flyers that included three roster players and every Flyers draft pick.

"All you had to do was watch Mario once, and you knew he was going to be the franchise," Johnston said as he looked at a miniature version of the statue during a luncheon at the Lexus Club inside Consol Energy Center. "He was doing that to five guys in junior hockey, and when he came to the NHL, he kept right on doing it. It wasn't just those (Islanders defensemen). Even that first year, he was doing it to guys like (Hockey Hall of Famer) Ray Bourque.

"That's why I like the statue. It reminds me of Mario at his best. It's how he should be remembered."

About the statue

Information about the Mario Lemieux statue unveiled on Wednesday outside the Trib Total Media gate at Consol Energy Center:

> > 10 feet, 3 inches tall

> > 13 feet long and 10 feet deep

> > 4,700 pounds

> > Design/construction lasted 15 months

> > Required six days to transport on a flat-bed truck from Piedmont, Calif., to Pittsburgh

> > Depicts Lemieux beating New York Islanders defensemen Rich Pilon and Jeff Norton on Dec. 20, 1988, before scoring

Source: Pittsburgh Penguins

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