Mmmmmmm...egg rolls. Better yet, microwaved egg rolls. Mario Lemieux, the extraordinary young center for the Pittsburgh Penguins and our culinary guide for the evening, carefully fingers each icy morsel and then fires it into the oven.
"Something to drink?" he asks, opening the refrigerator. Inside, there is food with a Civil War expiration date. The dishes in the sink are dirty. On the bottom shelf of the fridge is a very dubious-looking chocolate cream pie. "My girlfriend made that," Lemieux says. "She went back home to Montreal three weeks ago."
Thank goodness beer keeps. Lemieux grabs an Iron City—what else would a self-respecting Pittsburgher drink—and plops down onto the couch in his furnished apartment. Soon the microwave whines. Lemieux, with the daring of youth, takes the first bite. "Ugggh," he says, wincing. "Bad, eh?" Lemieux does the only rational thing. Back to the refrigerator. Ketchup.
So now the ugly truth can be told. Lemieux is a normal 20-year-old, much like any other 20-year-old. Except for one difference: He's the 20-year-old who saved hockey in Pittsburgh, the man-child who brought the Penguins back from endangered species status, both competitively and financially. No player—not Wayne Gretzky, not Bobby Orr—has ever been asked to do so much both on the ice and off. No player has ever responded more brilliantly and gracefully.
"Without Lemieux, they pack up the team and move to another city," says Glen Sather, president, general manager and coach of the Edmonton Oilers.
Lemieux, drafted No. 1 overall in 1984, scored 43 goals and had 57 assists last season for 100 points, the third-highest total by a rookie (bettered only by Peter Stastny and Dale Hawerchuk). He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's Rookie of the Year. He was the Most Valuable Player in the All-Star Game. And, moonlighting, he led Team Canada to a stunning victory over the Soviet Union and a second-place finish at the world championships in Prague.
This season Lemieux is ahead of that pace, by a lot. In 59 games the 6'4", 200-pound Montrealer has 38 goals and 72 assists for 110 points and thus ranks second in the league to Gretzky, who has 164 points. As of Sunday, Lemieux had the longest consecutive point scoring streak in the NHL, at 18 games. And as he has staged his midseason scoring surge, the Penguins, with a 28-25-7 record, are locked in a battle with the N.Y. Islanders for third place in the tough Patrick Division. Their 63 points earned in 60 games are 10 more than they accumulated for all of 1984-85, and suddenly a team that could win only 16 games the season before Lemieux arrived is a good bet to make the playoffs.
Perhaps most important, the Penguins are no longer regarded by Pittsburgh as comic relief after the Steelers pack up and go home. Last season, attendance at the 16,033-seat Civic Arena increased 46%, from an average of 6,839 to 10,018. This season there has been another 18% gain, to 11,864. How much of that increase is due to Lemieux? "I'd say 90 percent," says Paul Steigerwald, the Penguins' director of marketing. "No, actually I'd have to say 100 percent. Without him, the team doesn't improve and the fans don't come out. He's meant everything to this organization."
Including its continued existence in Pittsburgh. It was only last summer that Edward J. DeBartolo, owner of the Penguins and the Major Indoor Soccer League's Pittsburgh Spirit, threatened to disband or move both of the financially draining franchises. The Penguins were said to be going north across the border to Hamilton, Ont. But on July 22, DeBartolo won a $425,000 reduction in Civic Arena rent and a city-county commitment of as much as $11.4 million to refurbish the 24-year-old building. In return, DeBartolo pledged only to keep the teams in Pittsburgh for at least this season. Now, with Lemieux leading a renaissance that has turned Steel City fans on, the moving vans have been called off. "We're staying right here," says general manager Eddie Johnston.
And so is Lemieux. He had signed the richest NHL rookie contract ever—$350,000 for each of his first two seasons. This winter the Penguins gave him a five-year deal worth an estimated $2.75 million, which puts him second only to Gretzky on the league salary scale.