Blinking into the glare of the television lights, Mario Lemieux went public last Friday, a difficult thing for this very private athlete to do under the best of circumstances. These were far from the best of circumstances. Earlier in the week, doctors had discovered that Lemieux has Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer, and he had called a press conference in Pittsburgh to bare his feelings.
"I've faced a lot of battles since I was really young, and I've always come out on top," Lemieux told the assemblage. "I expect that will be the case with this disease."
Medical experts do, too. If, as doctors believe, cancer was present only in the one lymph node that had been removed from Lemieux's neck on Jan. 8, there is a 90% to 95% probability that he will be cured. Of course, there is a 5% to 10% chance that he won't. His life, not to mention his extraordinary-career, hangs in the balance.
Lemieux, 27, has long been known to keep his emotions under wraps, and the Penguins' team doctor, Charles Burke, was impressed by how well he seemed to take the bad news. But Lemieux was simply waiting to be alone. "I could hardly drive home because of the tears," he said. "I was crying all day." He needed nearly an hour to pull himself together and to summon the courage to tell his fiancée, Nathalie Asselin, who is six months pregnant.
The star-crossed Penguins are all too familiar with cancer. In November 1991, 60-year-old Bob Johnson, who that spring had coached Pittsburgh to the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups, died of brain cancer. The year before, Penguin goalie Tom Barrasso's daughter Ashley, who was two at the time, nearly died during a fight with neuroblastoma, a form of childhood cancer. Both illnesses played havoc with the emotions of the team.
Now Lemieux? "This was like a kick in the teeth, or some other part of the anatomy," said Penguin owner Howard Baldwin. "Actually, I'll tell you where it hits me: right in the soul."
"It seems like everything bad that happens in hockey happens to our team," said wing Kevin Stevens. "It seems as if it just never ends. But we're strong enough to deal with it. And Mario is strong enough to deal with it."
On Jan. 13, the morning after the Penguins announced Lemieux's illness but two days before his press conference, he strolled into-Pittsburgh's Civic Arena dressing room as though nothing had happened. He took a left turn into the trainer's room, as he usually does, said hello to Stevens, center Ron Francis, wing Rick Tocchet and defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, the team's leaders. "As soon as I walked in, everything went silent," said Lemieux. "That was unusual. People aren't sure what to say. When somebody has cancer, there's not much you can say except, 'Good luck.' "
Barrasso shared with Lemieux and the rest of the Penguins the perspective he had gleaned from his daughter's illness and recovery. "You have to feel as though you're going to kick the cancer right in the ass," Barrasso said. "He should feel great about his chances. I think he'll breeze through this."
Lemieux first noticed the lump in his neck a year and a half ago but didn't think anything of it. He finally mentioned it to his doctors two weeks ago, when he began suffering from a sore throat. At the same time, he was experiencing an unrelated flare-up of back pain.