Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Following a standout career, during which he had already scored over 600 goals and nearly 1,500 points, appeared in eight NHL All-Star Games, been named the winner of the Hart Trophy as league MVP three times, the Art Ross Trophy six times as league scoring champion, the Conn Smythe Trophy twice as playoff MVP, the Pearson Award four times, won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, the Bill Masterton Trophy, won two Stanley Cups, had his number retired, been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and defeated cancer, which included scoring a goal and an assist on the day of his last radiation treatment, and then going on to win the scoring title despite missing two months of the season, Mario Lemieux returned to the ice following a three and a half year retirement on this date in 2000.
Lemieux's first retirement banner
Having first undergone back surgery for a herniated and later infected disc back in 1990, Lemieux underwent a second surgery in the summer of 1993, which caused him to miss the first ten games of the 1993-94 season followed by another 48 games due to more issues with his back. Following the season he took a leave of absence from the game, citing fatigue from the radiation treatments. He returned after a year off and played two more seasons, which included both his 500th and 600th goals, before announcing his retirement from play following the 1996-97 season.
In November of 1998, the Pittsburgh Penguins were forced to declare bankruptcy, with Lemieux's deferred salary amounting to $30 million making him the club's largest creditor. He then made the unusual proposal to convert the debt the club owed him into equity in the franchise, a proposal approved by the NHL Board of Governors on September 1, 1999. Two days later a U. S. Bankruptcy Court approved the plan, making Lemieux the chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer of the Penguins and the first former NHL player to become majority owner of his former team.
The Penguins played well in Lemieux's first season away from the team, winning the Northeast Division in 1997-98 after being led in scoring my Jaromir Jagr's 102 points, but they would be dumped in the first round in six games by the Montreal Canadiens. The next two seasons saw the club slip in the standings and be ousted from the playoffs in the second round both years.
When the 2000-01 season began, the Penguins were playing average hockey over the course of the first two months of the season, but on December 9th, Lemieux announced his intention to come out of retirement and return to active play. 18 days later, Pittsburgh's record was 15-14-6-1 as Lemieux took to the ice for the first time since April 26, 1997, three years and eight months prior.
Stating he wanted to return so his son Austin could see him play in person, Lemieux wasted no time in registering his first point of the night with the second assist on a goal by Jagr just 33 seconds into the game.
The Penguins would add a power play goal halfway through the first period to take a 2-0 lead into the second period. Now halfway through the third period, Jagr carried the puck into the Toronto Maple Leafs zone, curled back and fed Lemieux coming up the slot and put the puck right onto Lemieux's cocked and ready stick for his first goal of his comeback, thrilling the home fans in Pittsburgh.
Following a close call, Jagr back checks the puck off of a Maple Leaf player, which went to Lemieux who instinctively threw the puck toward the crease where Jan Hrdina corralled the puck, moved it to his backhand and lifted it over Curtis Joseph for a 4-0 Penguins lead and Lemieux's third point of the night to go along with five shots in 20:46 of ice time. Jagr would add a shorthanded breakaway goal just before time expired to make it a 5-0 final, capping a memorable night for the fans in Pittsburgh, as their star and franchise savior had returned.
Today's featured jersey is a 2000-01 Pittsburgh Penguins Mario Lemeiux jersey. This was one of the rare times a Lemieux jersey did not feature the captain's "C" or at least the assistant captain's "A" once Lemieux was named team captain back in 1987. Lemieux would return to the captaincy for the 2001-02 season through the remainder of his career.
This style of Penguins jersey was first introduced for the 1992-93 season following back-to-back Stanley Cup titles for Pittsburgh. It's modernized logo, which replaced the Penguins original and beloved skating penguin logo, was never truly embraced by the fans in Pittsburgh, who viewed it as cold design that lacked the charm of the previous cartoon bird and dubbed it "the robo-penguin".
Add in the fact the team failed to return to the Stanley Cup Finals while wearing it, and one can see how the design was a victim of the times during which it was worn, not unlike the Islanders fisherman logo. Despite the fact it was not viewed as fondly as it's championship winning predecessor, this style would be used for ten seasons through the 2001-02 season when replaced by a new white version of the team's black third jersey which saw the return of the original skating penguin logo. For 2002-03, the black alternate and new white jerseys would become the Penguins primary home and road jerseys.
Today's final video is the special pre-game ceremony prior to the game, which included the ceremonial lowering of the banner retiring his #66.