NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Mario Lemieux gripped the Stanley Cup with both hands, raised his eyebrows, raised his rosy cheeks into a childlike smile, raised the Cup itself, then lowered it for the customary kiss:
More than anyone who'd hold it aloft on this night, he did so not just with the regal grace we've come to expect, but also the familiarity. Like greeting an old friend.
Except for one thing.
"It never gets old," he'd say later. "Never."
The Penguins had just put down the Predators, 2-0, in front of what had been another cacophonous capacity crowd inside Bridgestone Arena. But in this instance, the only noise came from Sidney Crosby and the rest of the team behind him applauding and, in front of him, the 2,000 or remaining fans, all clad in black and Pittsburgh gold, chanting, 'Ma-ree-oh! Ma-ree-oh!'
The celebration had gotten a little scattered until then. The athletes had taken their laps, as had a couple others. But the moment this occurred -- and this is captured powerfully in the image above -- everyone and everything stopped to look.
That also never gets old, huh?
It was the franchise's fifth championship, Lemieux's fifth ring.
And now, as then, the two are inexorably linked.
"So happy for Mario," Evgeni Malkin would later beam. "He was great player -- greatest player -- but he's great owner, too. We all respect him so much."
It's very much mutual, judging by Lemieux's lavish praise for all that he and the hockey world had just witnessed with the NHL's first back-to-back championships since the Red Wings in 1996 and 1997, meaning also the first of the salary cap era that began after the lockout of 2004-05.
"All the injuries, the back-to-back, everything that this team had to overcome," Lemieux said, "I mean, anytime you can do that and win the Stanley Cup ... yeah, this one's special."
Ron Burkle, the co-owner who helped him buy the Penguins out of bankruptcy in 1999 for $107 million, essentially echoed that: "I'm so proud of the players. That's what stands out for me, how they stuck together, supported each other."
Of Crosby's brilliance in particular, which was capped by joining Lemieux and the Flyers' Bernie Parent as the only back-to-back Conn Smythe Trophy winners in history, Lemieux said, "From the day we drafted him, he grew as a great leader, great player, one of the best of all time. For him to win three Cups, it puts him among the greats of our game."
Of Malkin, the playoffs' top scorer, Lemieux said, "He was unbelievable."
And of the team achieving this in a cap league that had snuffed out sustained success for two decades, he added, "It was very important for our franchise and a lot of others to have the cap so that we compete more fairly, spend to the limit and get back to this level."
That's a striking and instructive comment, to say the least.
When Lemieux won his first two Cups in 1991 and 1992, though this is seldom cited, the Penguins had the highest payroll in the NHL. With a Hall of Fame supporting cast that included Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Joe Mullen, Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy and other luminaries, that's no surprise. Nor did anyone in Pittsburgh complain about it.
But as other teams based in cities capable of generating far more revenue began to load up, the Penguins soon found themselves sagging financially and, sadly, selling off their better players for prospects that were nowhere near comparable value. Although Lemieux's emergence from retirement brought a scintillating resurgence, eventually, the team was stripped bare and soon bottomed out with the league's worst record and lowest attendance in 2003-04.
Then came the lockout, and it was Lemieux and Burkle who stood at the forefront of the owners pushing for a cap, even at the expense of the entire season being lost.
"A tough thing to go through," Lemieux said, "but we needed it, certainly in Pittsburgh."
The lockout was unpopular in many cities, though not Pittsburgh and in most Canadian cities, who'd experienced similar losses of talent and, in the cases of Winnipeg and Quebec, their very franchises because of economic imbalance. Fan sentiment at the time was overwhelmingly in favor of a cap and any other measure that would keep the Rangers, Maple Leafs, Red Wings and other wealthy outfits from dominating the spending.
This probably is worth appreciating most at a time like this. The successful fight for the cap, chronologically, sits somewhere in the middle of his player, player/owner and owner careers, but it's probably his most pivotal contribution -- though it involved many others, as well -- toward all that's happened since for his team:
That's one perspective on Lemieux's ring count. Another goes back just three years.
That's when he and Burkle, in 2014, jointly decided they'd had enough of the Ray Shero/Dan Bylsma tandem and the repeated playoff flops that mostly followed the 2009 championship. Shero had shut out upper management when making moves, and Bylsma had pretty much shut out the world in sticking by stubborn strategies. And after an embarrassing playoff collapse against the Rangers, they took complete charge of the operation and cleaned house.
That allowed David Morehouse to find Jim Rutherford and, in turn, Rutherford eventually uncovered Mike Sullivan.
"We couldn't be more proud of those guys," Lemieux said.
Burkle feels even more strongly on that matter, but he prefers not to discuss it publicly.
Another perspective stays within the past year.
Remember all the criticism of the PPG Paints Arena ice, beginning with its opening?
Players routinely complained that it was some of the NHL's most sluggish, that it dampened their speed and skill. And the team, in response, would subtly hint that the real issue wasn't the rink construction but the quality of the work being done to create and preserve the ice. It seemed like a duel that had losers on both sides.
Well, with zero fanfare, Morehouse in the past few months cleaned house in his own way and completely overhauled the ice workers, all mechanisms to create it and all standards for keeping it hard and slick, the way hockey players like it. He did so with the blessing, financially and otherwise, of Lemieux and Burkle. And the ultimate payoff, it could be argued, came with the 6-0 rout of the Predators in Game 5 of the Final, when the Penguins skated like they were shot from bazookas.
"Our owners have given us everything we've needed, everything we've wanted," Morehouse said. "They'll never say no."
Yet another perspective, maybe the most important, goes much further back.
Back in 1984, when Lemieux was the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft by a team fresh off a 16-58-6 disaster -- some of it self-inflicted, controversially, to ensure the prime selection -- there was no light in sight. There'd been a handful of ups and downs, the occasional Jean Pronovost, Pierre Larouche or Rick Kehoe, but there was much more of Rocky Saganiuk, Greg Hotham and Tim Hrynewich.
The Penguins' five championships in 50 years match the Oilers for most by a post-1967-expansion franchise, while also being tied for sixth-most all-time. Since 1987-88, when Lemieux hit his prime, they've had 24 winning seasons and five losing seasons. And this, in its own way, might be most astounding: They've claimed the Art Ross Trophy for the NHL's top scorer 15 of the past 25 years, and they've done so with four different players: Lemieux, Jagr, Crosby and Malkin.
What's it all mean?
"It means," Lemieux said, "that we've come a long way."
He grinned with the remark, but it's got merit, certainly on a personal level.
In 1984, still a lanky teen and still learning English phrases by watching soap operas at his Mt. Lebanon host family's home, he'd regularly have to make public appearances to promote the sport. Not the team, but the sport. And the challenge had to have appeared intimidating if not impossible. Once, at a Thrift Drug in Monroeville, he was propped uncomfortably behind a cafeteria-style table for two hours with no more than a handful of fans in line for his autograph.
There's a perception that Lemieux's arrival instantly elevated the Penguins here. It isn't true. The year before he came, the indoor soccer Spirit outdrew them in their own building. The night he made his home debut against the Canucks, there were 5,000 empty seats. And that was a good crowd that season. There were seven total sheets of ice for amateur hockey in the entire seven-county region. And the Penguins themselves, of course, didn't even qualify for the playoffs for his first five seasons.
It wasn't easy on any front.
"I know. I was there," Lemieux said with another smile. "There were some tough times, some real challenges. But we're fortunate that we've had some great people, some great players who came to Pittsburgh and helped us win the Cup. And we're fortunate to have more great people, great players keep doing that."
The common denominator, the only one, was the greatest of all.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
[caption id="attachment_342678" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle celebrate the Stanley Cup win, Game 6, Stanley Cup Final, Nashville, Tenn., June 11, 2017. – MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
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