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On This Date in Sports December 27, 2000: Mario's Returns

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

After three years on the sidelines, Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux comes out of retirement for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Lemieux had become the Penguins owner a year earlier, saving the team from bankruptcy. As his #66 is lowered from the rafters, Mario Lemieux would end the game with a goal and two assists as the Penguins beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-0 at Mellon Arena.

Mario Lemieux was born on October 5, 1965, in Montreal. A skilled player, it was obvious he was meant for greatness from his days with the Laval Voisins in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. In 1984, the Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils were each accused of tanking to get the first pick. The Penguins would ultimately finish with the worst record and earned the right to pick Lemieux first overall. In his first game and scored in his first shift and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie with 43 goals and 57 assists.

After winning the Calder Trophy, Mario Lemieux became regarded as the second-best player in the NHL behind Wayne Gretzky. In 1988 he broke Gretzky lock on the MVP, winning his first scoring title with 70 goals and 98 assists. A year later he had his best season, with 85 goals and 114 assists. Mario Lemieux would win the scoring title four times in six years. However, it was in 1991 and 1992 he reached the ultimate heights leading the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships.

In 1993, Mario Lemieux played through cancer as he was treated Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and still won the scoring title and MVP. However, health problems began to become a factor as he missed much of the next two seasons with a back injury. Lemieux returned to full strength in 1996, winning a fifth scoring title and third Hart Trophy with 69 goals and 92 assists. He repeated as scoring champion in 1997, netting 50 goals with 72 assists, but decided to retire and was inducted into the Hall of Fame with the usual three-year waiting period waived.

While retired, Mario Lemieux was called upon to save the Pittsburgh Penguins again as the team declared bankruptcy in 1999. With no local owners to be found, Mario stepped up and took a controlling interest to keep the team in Steel City. Just 35 years old, Mario Lemieux began working out for a comeback hoping to again win the Stanley Cup and increase his team’s worth. Stating that he wanted his four-year-old son Austin to see him play, Mario Lemieux announced he would return to the ice for the Penguins first home game after Christmas in 2000.

Mellon Arena was packed for the Penguins game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, as the team coached by Ivan Hlinka entered the game with a record of 15-14-6-1. With his retired number banner being lowered, Mario Lemieux nearly blew the roof off the igloo by assisting on a goal by Jaromir Jagr during his first shift, 33 seconds into the game. Alexei Kovalev added a power play goal to give Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead the first intermission. In the second period, Mario Lemieux found the back of the net to make it 3-0. He later added a second assist on a goal by Jan Hrdina to make it 4-0. Jagr added a second goal, an unassisted shorthanded goal finishing with four points to make it 5-0. It was more than enough for Garth Snow who stopped all 40 shots to earn a shutout win.

Mario Lemieux would score 35 goals with 41 assists in 43 games in his return. The Penguins would finish the season with a record of 42-28-9-3. They would go on to play in the Eastern Conference Finals, losing to the New Jersey Devils in five games. Injuries would once again hamper Mario the remainder of his career, as he had to deal with the awkwardness of being a player and owner through the labor dispute that wiped out the entire 2004/05 season. When the NHL returned, Lemieux served as a mentor for Sidney Crosby, retiring again in 2006 with 690 goals and 1033 assists.