The parallels are hard to ignore.
Both arrived in desperate times for the franchise, possessed prodigious natural talent and had to overcome physical ailments to stay on the ice.
And, as of last June, both have now twice won Stanley Cups.
In the history of the Penguins, no two players — and possibly no two people — have played as significant a role as Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby.
Lemieux brought respectability, and a pair of championships, to a franchise still struggling to find its foothold in the late 1980s. He later helped save the franchise from potential relocation as an owner, and has overseen two more Stanley Cups, won by Crosby, from the owner’s box.
Crosby spurred the franchise's revival from the doldrums of the mid-2000s. He has delivered two more Stanley Cups to the city, and done his part to build on the culture of hockey in Western Pennsylvania that Lemieux helped establish.
Both men played a role in the most significant off-ice Penguins development of the 21st century, the move from Civic Arena to Consol Energy Center.
Key dates in Penguins history
New owners take over
After a negotiation-filled summer, the court finally approves the "Lemieux Group's" purchase of the Penguins. Ron Burkle and Lemieux become the franchise's co-owners.
Lemieux shocks the hockey world again, this time by coming out of retirement to score a goal and finish with four points, contributing an assist 33 seconds in. He would rack up 76 points in 43 games to finish with the best points-per-game average among NHL players.
But for as much as both Crosby and Lemieux have done for the Penguins as a franchise, none of it would have been possible without their natural talent and ability on the ice. Both possessed once-in-a-generation skills, but teammates and coaches also praised their innate leadership qualities in getting the best out of themselves and their teammates.
“I think there’s a lot of similarities,” said Phil Bourque, who played with Lemieux and now works as the Penguins’ radio color commentator. “I don’t think either one, when you talk to their teams, will say, ‘Remember when Mario stood up and said this,’ or ‘I remember when Sid made this big statement.’
“It’s one of those things where, as a player, when they did say something … you kind of stop what you’re doing because you know it’s really coming from the heart. If he stood up and said anything, usually his play was going to multiply tenfold.”
Winger Bob Errey, who often played alongside Lemieux, also recalled that Lemieux didn’t always say much, but when he did, the words carried a bigger weight.
While a playful “shut up” from some teammates might only be met with a laugh, if it came from Lemieux, you know it was serious. “Mario picked his spots,” Errey said. “I think it was more poignant that way. It had more impact when you pick your spots to be very vocal and very to the point, and that’s the way Mario was.”
The similarities between the two also likely trace back to Crosby’s first few years in Pittsburgh, when he lived with Lemieux and his family in Sewickley. Crosby has credited that time with Lemieux as critical for him learning how to handle being a star in the NHL.
“He’s been huge, I think,” Crosby said. “When you come out at 18 years old, you don’t know what to expect, and there’s expectations. And you know, you live with somebody, are around somebody, only one of the few that can kind of relate to all that, you know, it means a lot.”
For his part, Crosby has tried to pass that on as best he can to the current younger generation of Penguins. Especially on this Penguins team, which by the end of last season had 10 players 27 or younger, Crosby has embraced his role as a mentor.
“We were able to witness that this year up close, watching Sid and how he interacts with his teammates on a daily basis,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think he took responsibility for the young players that we had on our team. He took them all under his wing. I think he was a great example as far as illustrating to those guys how to be a pro and what it takes to win.”
Of course, for both Lemieux and Crosby, their leadership is backed up by the rare talent they posses on the ice. Errey recalled the Penguins 1991 Stanley Cup final win against Minnesota, in which Lemieux scored 12 points despite playing just five of the six games.
“Who could go through a team like that, who could beat guys one-on-one like that?” Errey said. “Who could do that? Nobody.
“I was on his line a lot. I know he always had a lot of thoughts going through his head because I sat beside him in the dressing room, so we’d always be chatting this way and that way. You could just see his head thinking so many times.”
Crosby, too, has been praised for how quickly he sees the game. After Conor Sheary’s game-winning overtime goal in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final earlier this year, he said Crosby essentially diagrammed the whole play just before the faceoff.
“They process things differently,” said Errey, who currently works as a Penguins analyst for ROOT Sports. “There’s something crazy. I wonder what they do at night. How do they wash all that?”
It may be hard to explain, but the results speak for themselves. Four months ago, Crosby won his second Stanley Cup with the Penguins, matching Lemieux’s total. The first came in 2009, and many, including Crosby, thought the wait for the second one was a bit longer than expected.
But as longtime Penguins broadcaster Paul Steigerwald pointed out, the length between Crosby’s first and second Cup — seven years — was the same amount of time it took Lemieux to win his first.
“Those years, I think, taught us that it is really difficult and you should savor it when you get the opportunity,” Steigerwald said. “You’ve heard Sid say a lot of that after he won it this past summer. He was talking about savoring the opportunity, taking advantage of it. It just doesn’t come along that often, and you’ve got to seize it.”
Lemieux definitely appreciated the meaning of Crosby matching his second Cup — though he’s perfectly fine if that’s one area where their careers diverge just a bit, and Crosby ends up surpassing him.
“I think it’s important for great players like Sid and [Evgeni] Malkin to have two Cups,” Lemieux said on the ice after the Penguins’ win. “It’s so hard to win it year after year.
“For them to be able to come through this year and win their second Cup, hopefully there’s a few more for them.”
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