Multifaceted Mario re-steels Pittsburgh

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As Mario Lemieux stepped to the podium for a press conference in Denver last weekend, it was easy to see why he's America's latest sports icon. Lemieux is a ruddy-cheeked, 6 ft., 4 in., 240-pounder whose energy seems radiant.

But the role of sports hero was only one of many he was called upon to play at the National Hockey League All-Star Game last weekend.

Of course, there was Mario on ice. Since coming out of retirement Dec. 27, he's compiled a remarkable 34 points (for goals and assists) in 17 games, and his Pittsburgh Penguins have a sparkling 11-5-0-1 record. Lemieux had been named to his ninth All-Star contest, then elected captain of the North American squad. In a 12-year career before he retired in 1997, Lemieux had been named Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game three times.

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But then, there was Mario the majority owner of the Penguins, who saved the franchise from being moved to Portland, Ore., two years ago. Now he was doubling as player-owner. When a reporter asked whether he'd considered how long he might continue playing, now that he was doing so well, Lemieux said he thought he'd go another season after this one.

"And have you signed a contract?" the reporter teased. "We are negotiating right now," the player-owner assured him.

Then there was Mario-as-dad, stepping out of the spotlight to shush his small son, roughhousing at the edge of the podium. And Mario the French Canadian, fielding questions adroitly in two languages. (When Lemieux arrived in Pittsburgh as an 18-year-old rookie in 1984, his English was limited.)

But above all, there was Mario the survivor. After suffering serious back problems for much of his career, in 1992 he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in midseason. After six weeks of therapy, he went back on the ice and finished the season. Marvels teammate Kevin Stevens: "I think he gets overlooked, what he's overcome."

Perhaps nothing was more marvelous than the ability of Lemieux to shift from a world of sweat suits and skates to blue suits and business meetings, considering that he'd retired to play golf. Lemieux was never interested in anything as cerebral as sports management. (Once, when a reporter asked what book he wanted to read when he got the time, he'd replied, simply, "I don't read.")

But he'd settled down with his wife in Pittsburgh, and his four children were born there. Plus, the Penguins owed him $26 million in deferred compensation. Had the franchise failed, he'd have been paid dimes on the dollar. That's how Lemieux joined the ranks of NHL owners.

Then came news that sent shock waves through hockey. At age 35, he'd play again.

When the last act of Lemieux's career is written, it's likely he'll be cast in yet another role: as a hero in his local economy. Pittsburgh is a city that has been striving to build a new high-tech economy while surviving as a small market in major league sports. From 1950 to 1990, metropolitan Pittsburgh's Allegheny County lost 4 of every 5 jobs in the steel industry, 90,000 in all. Today, no steel is manufactured within the city limits of Pittsburgh.

Of the 25 largest urban areas in the United States, Pittsburgh has the highest proportion of citizens over age 65. And it is the only large American city to have lost population in the past decade.

At the same time, new industries have begun to take hold, thanks to programs at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. New jobs emerged in healthcare, and Pittsburgh has grown as a financial center. A new economy is being built, but the challenge is to retain young, high-tech workers.

And sports is part of the equation. Chris Hayes, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon, is typical. A native of Boston, he has stayed in Pittsburgh as a software developer. Why?

"If I were to list my top three criteria for where to live," Hayes says, "job opportunities would be No. 1, cost of living No. 2, and entertainment - including successful sports franchises - would rank No. 3."

Hayes may be watching Feb.11, as Pittsburgh's aging Three Rivers Stadium is torn down. When the baseball Pirates and the football Steelers open their seasons this year in brand-new baseball and football stadiums, he may be in the crowd.

And when the Penguins take to the ice, young high-tech workers will be watching, too. Will there be a campaign to replace the Igloo, the oldest arena in the NHL?

According to Penguins' marketing executive Tom McMillan, "We're not asking for anything just now. When Mario bought the team, he said eventually we'll need to upgrade our facilities. But we have a two-year plan to get the business back on its feet.

"Last year, we broke even, after losing $16 million the year before. This year, attendance is up a thousand fans a game. We've been running right on schedule, but Mario's return has put us on a fast track."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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