Part 1: Cancer comeback one of sports' great stories
Saturday, 03.02.2013 / 3:00 AM
Many believe the 1992-93 NHL season was among the finest staged in the League's history. From the addition of two teams through expansion, to the sudden prominence of European players, to the heroics of Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, to the crowning of Montreal as Stanley Cup champions, the season was full of memorable moments. On its 20th anniversary, NHL.com will spend the year looking back at the key moments of that '92-93 season to see if it may indeed be the NHL's Greatest Season. Mario Lemieux's arrival in Pittsburgh in 1984 changed the city and the course of hockey history.
Lemieux became one of the League's all-time greatest players and helped establish Pittsburgh as one of the best hockey cities in the United States. His skill and size was unprecedented, and eventually Le Magnifique led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992.
His 1992-93 season became one of the most remarkable for a professional athlete in the history of organized sport, not just the one played on ice with a puck and some sticks. Lemieux had missed more than 100 games with back problems in his career, but on Jan. 12, 1993, the Penguins announced their 27-year-old superstar center had cancer.
Lemieux was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, now known as Hodgkin's lymphoma, after an enlarged lymph node was removed from his neck.
Dave Tippett, Pittsburgh Penguins forward "He was always battling injuries so we were kind of used to him being out for games at times, but when we found out and he had the press conference it was a shock to everyone. So much is unknown, even more at that time, when you hear the word 'cancer.' Everyone was taken aback, especially when you see this big, strong, superior athlete in the prime of his career.
"Mario was a very quiet guy, a captain who led by example. But he was well-liked in the room, and when that news hit us everyone was shocked."
Jaromir Jagr, Pittsburgh Penguins forward
"Of course, you have to remember those were different days. Twenty years ago, the Internet had just started, cell phones had just started. Any information, it was tough to get it. I guess most of the guys, the younger guys, didn't know what Hodgkin's disease was. Now it's easy, because you can write about everything, you can read about it on the Internet. You can find anything, but back then it was a different world if you look at it. The Internet had just started. There were newspapers. That's all you got. If you didn't understand what it was, you'd have to go to some book to find out. You couldn't go anywhere else. There weren't many guys that had information."
Kevin Dineen, Philadelphia Flyers forward
"You sorely miss players when they leave, whether it's when Wayne Gretzky retired from the League or Mario had to step away from cancer. You say, boy, those are irreplaceable pieces because they really define an era. The amazing thing about it was to come back from battling cancer, and to be as successful as he was, was pretty exciting stuff."
Lemieux began radiation therapy in early February, and the entire process included 22 treatments. The last one came the morning of March 2, 1993, at 7:30 a.m. Lemieux finished his treatment then took a plane to Philadelphia to meet the team.
Tom McMillan, former beat writer, freelance writer covering the Penguins
"There were certainly hints [about Lemieux possibly playing], but there was nothing definitive. I think part of it was the Penguins weren't sure. I don't know. It probably seemed so ridiculous that he was going to be able to play on the day of his last radiation treatment that nobody wanted to commit to that. That was always my feeling, like, 'Are you kidding me? He's going to try to do this?' Mario did those types of remarkable things in his career, but that might have been the most remarkable, that he actually had a treatment that day, got on a plane and played that night."
Mike Lange, Pittsburgh Penguins play-by-play announcer
"There was an incredible amount of anticipation. I think we were all surprised that he was able to jump right back into the fray after all he had gone through, especially with the [treatment] and everything involved. Pretty much it was like, 'Is this guy for real?'
"That was stunning, really, that he would finish up and just get on an airplane to join the team. Really nobody had any idea that he was going to play a game. It was kind of the biggest surprise. He just walked right in and it wasn't the first time that had happened. There were instances when Mario would go across the street to the hospital in Pittsburgh during a game and then come back later in the contest after, almost like riding a white horse into the Civic Arena. It wasn't a giant surprise considering his character, but it was especially because of [the treatment] and what he had gone through."
"A story like that, it just goes to show you that it transcended rivalries. It transcended everything. We are still a hockey community, and one of ours had this shocking situation when you see an athlete at the peak of his power and skill face cancer, it was sobering for everybody. The drama of the comeback, just the determination you'd have to have.
"Look, clearly in Mario's mind that was his plan all along. He was trying to play as quickly as possible."
A team employee drove Lemieux to Pittsburgh International Airport for a US Air flight to Philadelphia, but it was delayed and he ended up on a small charter plane, and eventually in the visitors dressing room at the Spectrum for a game that night against the Flyers.
Rick Tocchet, Pittsburgh Penguins forward
"When he came into the room it was almost like a sudden calmness to the room. When you have one of the best players that ever played, your best player who helped win a Cup for a lot of guys in the last two years, the whole room just agreed, 'We're good.' We got our leader back, our player back. So it was just more a calmness to the room.
"He's such a great guy that he was kind of joking around to get everybody back in the normal flow of things, because I think everybody was kind of nervous. How do you deal with that? Well, he just made a few cracks and it was Mario being Mario, a very calm guy. Then all of a sudden the room got back to being normal. We were a goofy room, a lot of pranksters, jokesters, a lot of personality, and he got that room back together again."
"Talk about players being creatures of habit, this couldn't have been more of a player's comfort zone. Mario was so supremely talented, so skilled that I think the one thing people didn't get or people undersold, was his utter determination. He was a very determined player, but he made it look so easy that people didn't give him credit for that early in his career. I think this instance eliminated all that. People understood just how determined a player he was.
"I remember the visual of him wearing the turtleneck, I guess because of the radiation there were some burn marks. I'm speaking as a layman here, but I think that was the reason. When he came back, he was wearing a turtleneck. It was a look you'd never seen before."
"He was normal. He was wearing the turtleneck, but yeah, Mario is a guy that mixes in well. He's a lot like Wayne [Gretzky], he likes hanging with the guys and he felt comfortable in the dressing room, he felt comfortable being back. To me, the dressing room helped him. As much as he helped us become normal, I think we helped to get him back to normal."
NHL.com Correspondents Jerry Brown, Kurt Dusterberg, Steve Hunt, Louie Korac and Alain Poupart; NHL.com Senior Writer Dan Rosen; and NHL.com Staff Writer Mike G. Morreale contributed to this story