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PITTSBURGH — The UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex is located in Cranberry Township, about a 25-minute drive from downtown Pittsburgh.
It’s where the Penguins practise on one of two rinks at the facility, which is also home to the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite youth hockey program.
The complex is named after Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, who won two Stanley Cups as a player with the Penguins and three more in his current role as co-owner and chairman of the team.
There is an impressive display at the complex honouring Lemieux’s accomplishments, but not with the Penguins. Instead, there is memorabilia from Lemieux’s minor hockey days, going back to the 1977-78 Ville-Émard Hurricanes peewee Double-A team when Lemieux was 12, his 1980-81 season with the midget Triple-A Montreal-Concordia team, the 1983 world junior championship and his final junior season in 1983-84 with the Laval Voisins.
The display includes Lemieux’s team jacket and No. 12 sweater with the Hurricanes and the players’ stats from that season on a team that included current Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin and former Habs defenceman J.J. Daigneault. Lemieux led the Hurricanes in scoring with 150-93-243 totals in 65 games, more than double the points of Stéphane Lepage, who finished second on the team with 64-57-121 totals. Bergevin had 36-43-79 totals, while Daigneault had 13 goals and 59 assists.
Tom McMillan, the Penguins’ vice-president (communications), said they wanted to do something different to honour Lemieux at the team’s practice facility, which opened in 2015.
“This is going to be the centre of youth hockey, so we decided: Let’s do something to honour the career that most people in Pittsburgh don’t know about — his youth hockey career,” McMillan said Thursday while looking at Lemieux display.
“And the thing that really made it is that Mario got really enthused about it,” McMillan added. “He really got excited and when he went back to Montreal, his mother had saved his jacket and his sweater from his 12-year-old team and his skates. I knew he had played with Marc Bergevin and J.J. Daigneault and Berg had some photos from their team, so he sent those to us. People, I think, can’t comprehend how good he was at that level until you look at the stats and see that he doubles the second-place scorer on his team.”
Also in the display is the puck from Lemieux’s 50th goal as a 15-year-old with the midget Montreal-Concordia team and the white Canadien stick he used for his 53rd goal en route to finishing the year with 62-62-124 totals in 47 games.
There’s also Lemieux’s sweater from the 1983 world junior championship when he recorded 5-5-10 totals in seven games as a 17-year-old to help Canada win a bronze medal and his Laval Voisins sweater from the 1983-84 season when he had 133-149-282 totals in 70 games before being selected by the Penguins with the No. 1 pick at the 1984 NHL Draft. There’s also some old newspaper clippings from the Journal de Montréal.
“We just thought it would be so much more impactful than all his NHL stuff, which is so commonly displayed here in Pittsburgh,” McMillan said. “This is really unique and I think he ended up being pretty proud of it also. His mom had saved all these newspaper clippings in folders, so I had to go through them and pick out a few.
“You could tell that Mario was getting excited (about the display) because nobody had asked him about it or talked about his youth hockey for so long,” McMillan added. “So for this place as the home of youth hockey in Pittsburgh, what better image for kids: ‘Mario didn’t just become an NHL all-time great. He started like you did playing on his neighbourhood team.’ ”
McMillan has known Lemieux since his days as a reporter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and he interviewed Lemieux at his Ville-Émard home ahead of the 1984 NHL Draft. Now, Lemieux is McMillan’s boss with the Penguins.
“Mario came here as an 18-year-old when the Penguins weren’t very good and embraced Pittsburgh,” McMillan said in explaining the city’s love for Lemieux. “The town responds when you embrace it — and he did right away. He started living here full-time after his second season. He went back his first summer when he was 18, but he became a Pittsburgher right away and people responded to that. Obviously, he was a great player, but that was long before the Penguins’ success.
“You would not know when you talk to him today he’s the greatest player in NHL history,” McMillan added. “He treats everybody with respect. He’s just a normal guy. I think often people who reach that level of accomplishment, they aren’t like that. He really is. He walks through the office, he waves, he’ll bang on your office window — just like one of your buddies would walk by and bang on your window. If you’re not doing anything, he says: ‘Get to work!’
“It’s that humbleness that I think has enabled him to fit in here so well.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020