By: Casey Shea

It’s no secret that Mario Lemieux will forever be talked about as arguably the best player to ever lace up a pair of skates.

In my opinion, none have been better and he sits alone atop the mountain in that discussion.

Am I biased? Absolutely.

Do I care? Not one bit and here’s why:

Along with my parents, Lemieux was the reason I got into hockey as much as I have in my life.

I, like many other kids, used to pretend I was him while playing street hockey in the driveway. I can’t even begin to count how many Stanley Cups I won in the driveway.

Growing up in New England didn’t afford me the opportunity to see him play every night. I’d have to wait for the Penguins to either be on ESPN or wait for them to be in town to play the Bruins to watch on local television.

From a hockey standpoint, I’ve looked up to Lemieux since the very first game I watched. I’ve said it before on here, but my father put on a game one day in an attempt to teach me how the game was played.

The game happened to be between the Penguins and Bruins and Lemieux dominated. I don’t know the exact stats and wouldn’t even know where to begin to look and see which game it may have been all those years ago. I just know he was the best player on the ice and that he had instantly made me a Penguins fan for life.

Cheering for the Penguins as a kid nearly made my family disown me. Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but I was living in Bruins’ territory after all. I might as well have been cheering for the New York Yankees.

I endured many years of harsh criticism from friends and peers at school because I was wearing black and gold with the wrong crest in the middle. If anything, that whole experience taught me how to stick to my guns, persevere and learn how to deal with criticism.

I’d like to think that I developed a thicker skin in some part because of Lemieux. Seeing how he battled cancer and countless injuries while still dominating the game, was nothing short of inspiring.

I can clearly remember openly weeping after his first retirement and I’m sure I’m not alone in that statement. I was upset about never getting to see Lemieux play again. However, I was more upset that I had never gotten to see the man play in person.

A couple of years later when he announced he was coming back, I made it my goal to make sure I would see him play in person, if only one time.

I can now gladly say I got to see him play a handful of times, including a game in New Jersey where a kid named Sidney Crosby made his NHL debut.

He stepped back on the ice and picked up right where he left off and asserted himself as the best player in the world immediately.

The man’s entire career was an uphill battle, but he fought on and overcame it all. He led the Penguins to two Stanley Cups and has more awards than I’m sure he knows what to do with.

After seeing him play and learning more about his career both on and off the ice, I made it a goal in life to at least meet the man and thank him for being an inspiration.

That goal was realized at the statue unveiling ceremony for “Le Magnifique” on March 7.

I had the distinct honor of being one of the media personnel allowed inside the gates to witness the unveiling and had an almost front-row seat for the festivities.

The statue’s inspiration was drawn from a 1988 Sports Illustrated cover, which shows Lemieux busting through two defenders en route to scoring a goal.

It was explained that the reason they went with this design was to encapsulate Lemieux’s career of overcoming obstacles to reach his goal.

I’ve heard many fans complain that the statue should just be of him and no one else. I agree with that sentiment to a point.

Before hearing the explanation behind the design, I was of the belief that the statue should only have his likeness on it. After hearing the explanation, I still think I would have preferred to see a stand-alone statue of him, but I get its meaning and have a completely newfound respect for it.

Some have said the Penguins should replace it eventually with one more fitting of Lemieux.

However, you need to keep in mind that Lemieux didn’t want a statue in the first place. The rest of the ownership group approached him several times with the idea and he told them he didn’t want it every time.

It was the other owners collectively decided that they were going to do it on their own. To the naysayers out there, do you really think Lemieux would have eventually approved of this design if he didn’t like it?

Everyone Is entitled to their opinion of the artwork and that’s great.

Love it or hate it, it represents everything Lemieux has ever done in life and his career. He’s battled countless obstacles on and off the ice to keep this team here in Pittsburgh and he overcame them all.

Once the ceremony had wrapped up and the media scrum around Lemieux had dissipated, he conducted a single one-on-one interview in French with a reporter I am told was from Montreal.

There were only a few photographers left hanging around snapping away. I hung around for two reasons.

The first was to get some better shots of him for this website and the second was a pipedream to actually thank Lemieux for everything he’s done.

As the interview wrapped up, he walked toward me and I extended my hand out. While the handshake was brief, it was long enough for me to say, “Thank you Mario.”

I know he has no way of knowing everything I was trying to thank him for, but maybe he’ll see this post some day and understand how he has affected my life in some way.

Who knows, I may even get another chance some day.

Either way, I will never forget that day or that moment for the rest of my life.

It truly was “Le Magnifique.”

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