by Tony on 12/11/08 at 08:22 PM ET
I was still on active duty in the Navy in December 2000 (I retired in 2003). I happened to be on temporary duty at a conference in Fort Huachuca, Arizona of all places on December 11th, 2000. I had gone down to the cafeteria on our lunch break, had sat down with my plate of cholesterol and believe that I was watching either Sportscenter or CNN Headline News, something like that.
And then I heard something that absolutely stunned me, in a wonderful kind of way. Le Magnifique, Mario Lemieux, was coming back, out of his 3 1/2 year retirement. My co-workers, I’m sure none of them hockey fans, gave me a kinda “what the hell ??” look towards me as I spouted “Oh My God !!” and a couple “Holy Shit’s !!” out. I’m getting goosebumps just typing it right now.
Now, I should mention that even though I was a Penguins fan and a hockey fan in general, I wasn’t the fanatic that I am now (I attribute a lot of that to the frickin’ Pirates, but that’s for another day). In addition, I was overseas for many of Lemieux’s years with the Penguins, being WAY back before the days of easily accessible satellite TV. I was stationed in the Pentagon during the Pens’ cup years. So because of all that, I always felt I missed out on so much as a Penguins fan.
Suffice to say, the rest of my conference at Ft. Huachuca went mind-numbingly slow. We soon found out that Mario would return on Dec. 27th against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
And boy, did he return. The Igloo was jammed packed for the pre-game skate. He got an assist on the Penguins’ first goal only 33 seconds into the game. And then, it happened. He scored on a one-timer after a great centering pass from Jaromir Jagr with 5:27 remaining in the second period, and you could’ve sworn the Igloo roof was gonna blow off. Mike Lange, in one of his patented goal lines, said Lemieux was “smiling like a butcher’s dog”. I yelled like the Steelers had won yet another Super Bowl when he scored. Lemieux’s comeback vaulted the Penguins into an immediate Stanley Cup contender. And while the Pens lost to the defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils in the East Finals, it topped a great year for the Penguins.
Mario’s comeback also provided me with an opportunity that I never thought I’d have; I got the chance to take my two sons, then 14 and 7, to watch him play in person, which we did a couple of times. The last time was in Raleigh, on Oct. 7, 2005. Before the game, hundreds of Pens fans crowded around the Pens entrance to the ice for the pre-game skate. As the Pens came out, there was a good bit of applause, including for the then-rookie Sidney Crosby. But it was nothing compared to the roar that occured when 66 came on the ice. I swear, you’d think we were at the Igloo (the same thing happens in DC, for those of you who don’t know).
The game went to a shootout that night, and it gave me my favorite Lemieux memory (in person, anyway). Before the shootout started, as the officials were getting things ready by the scorers table, Lemieux, as the Pens’ first shooter, skated directly to center ice and proceeded to stare-down then rookie Hurricanes’ goalie Cam Ward. The sellout crowd, which was filled with at least 3 or 4 thousand Pens fans, was absolutely roaring at Lemieux.
But alas, Lemieux skated in, and give Ward credit, stopped the great Lemieux on his five-hole attempt. Ward then did the same thing to Ziggy Palffy and then to Crosby. Cory Stillman’s goal gave the Canes the shootout win, but it was that stare that for some reason was just a magical moment to me.
It doesn’t seem like eight years has gone by since that wonderful day. But Penguins fans and the hockey world in general are so thankful for what happened next.
If you’d like to read a front-office perspective, please read Pens’ VP of Communications Tom McMillan’s account here. In addition, here’s a video intro of the game that night, as well as a replay of Mario’s goal.
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Welcome to The Confluence, a Pittsburgh Penguins blog since 2006.
Originally at Blogspot, then at MVN, TheConfluence has over 1500 articles reporting Penguins news as well as jumping on my soapbox to opine constructive Penguins criticism.
I am blogger- credentialed with the Pittsburgh Penguins. My posts are regularly linked by hockey websites such as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Tribune Review, Yahoo!‘s Puck Daddy, and I’ve done numerous guest blogger spots on such websites asthe New YorkTimes. I am a retired U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer.
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