The Penguin brass has given Lemieux some decent companions for the ascent. Paul Coffey, the two-time Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's best defenseman, came from Edmonton in a trade early last season. Right wing Rob Brown, a fourth-round draft choice of the Penguins', has 37 goals in this, his second NHL season. And the Penguins got a huge boost last November when general manager Tony Esposito acquired goalie Tom Barrasso in a trade with Buffalo.
Frustrated by the Penguins' four seasons of failure, Lemieux is itching to make a postseason run. He was reticent his first year or two, in part because he was still learning English. He has since opened up, to the point where he has become a leader in the dressing room. Despite his youth, he was named captain in December of last season. Earlier this season, when tough guy Wayne Van Dorp threatened a Pittsburgh reporter, Lemieux intervened on the reporter's behalf, telling Van Dorp the Penguins didn't need such distractions in their locker room.
"He's 23, I'm 27, and a lot of times I find myself looking up to him," says left wing Randy Cunneyworth.
Lemieux is not one of the sports world's dashing figures. He used to have a half-pack-a-day cigarette habit, and he was hooked on video games, too, but in the last two years he has eliminated even those vices. A four-handicap golfer who says he might like to try making it on the pro Tour after his hockey career is over, he spends many of his off days on the links, or at home with Nathalie Asselin, his companion for the past seven years. They kick back, watch some tube and make a nice meal. Lemieux, a budding oenophile, will choose a good wine.
Lemieux and Asselin were introduced by cousins when he was 17 and she was 15. Asselin was a lifeguard at the time. She says it was love at first sight. "After the first minute, I knew," she says. She guesses it was the same for him. "He always jokes when I ask him [if he was smitten immediately], but when we get serious, he says he was."
She moved in with him two years ago. Last December, Lemieux received a $1 million raise to $1.6 million for this season, and they talk with equal enthusiasm about the mansion he is having built in Mount Lebanon, Pa., 10 minutes from the Penguins' practice rink. "It's going to have a Jacuzzi and a wine cellar, so then I can get some really good wines," says Lemieux.
When asked if he and Asselin intend to seek a more permanently binding arrangement, Mario actually blushes. "We're both a little young for that," he says, then adds, "We are coming up on seven years, though." A friend is certain the relationship will end in marriage. "He'd be lost without her," adds a teammate. "She screens his calls, cooks for him, she's his best friend. He'd be lost, believe me."
Even in his native French, Lemieux is not voluble. He follows his short-as-he-can-make-them, declarative-sentence answers with his trademark nod, as if to ask, Any more questions? No? In that case, I'll excuse myself so I can get home and grab a nap.
There is nothing unfriendly about it. He is kind and polite to everyone, from team owner Edward DeBartolo to Smitty and Schultzy, who work Gate 5 on game nights. Lemieux just happens to be better at showing people how he feels than telling them. Two days before Christmas, Pittsburgh played in New Jersey. Afterward, team trainer Skip Thayer and equipment manager Steve Latin planned to ride in an equipment truck to Hartford, site of the Pens' next game. Lemieux found out and hired a limo to take them.
Dave Molinari, the beat writer who covers the Penguins for The Pittsburgh Press, used a passage from Flaubert to precisely sum up Lemieux: "Be regular and orderly in your daily life, so you can be violent and original in your work."