It has been more than a decade since Mario Lemieux played his last NHL game for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and yet no athlete -- perhaps no human being -- is a more prominent presence in the city of champions.
A simple stroll through Pittsburgh is the easiest way to discover how fully the man who arrived in town from Quebec as a lanky 18-year-old in 1984 has been embraced by Pittsburgh. Not to mention the degree to which he has embraced the city right back.
In a region that has revered its sports legends for decades, the former Penguins star and current team co-owner and chairman is seemingly everywhere. For starters, there is the statue honoring him outside the Penguins' PPG Paints Arena. The towering tribute lies mere steps from 66 Mario Lemieux Place, the address bearing the Penguins legend's name and number where the team's former home, Mellon Arena, was once located.
With current Penguins captain Sidney Crosby facing the opportunity to capture his second straight (and third overall) Stanley Cup title Sunday night (8 ET) at Bridgestone Arena, Lemieux has established an incredibly high bar as the Penguins' reigning star establishes his own legacy around town.
The scope of Lemieux's presence all around Pittsburgh only starts with the Penguins. There's UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in nearby Cranberry Township, the state-of-the-art Penguins practice facility that has become a hub for local youth hockey. Since 1993, the Mario Lemieux Foundation has proven a crucial philanthropic organization with a hand in much of the city's medical community. Throw in the countless murals and portraits bearing Lemieux's likeness all around town along with the Hall of Famer's role in twice saving the franchise -- once as a player, once as an owner -- and there might not be another athlete with a more considerable influence over a city than Lemieux has in Pittsburgh.
"I think one of the amazing things about him is he is not from here, but he raised his family here, created this interesting connection with the city because he's not a real public person. He doesn't enjoy the limelight, he doesn't enjoy formal public interactions. But he's built this great relationship with the city," said Anne Madarasz, the director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center. "I think it's because people see him as genuine and authentic, and they recognize the kind of challenges he's faced in his own life with his health, with his family and with hockey. He has remained true to Pittsburgh."
A popular attraction for locals and tourists alike, the sports museum is a testament to Lemieux's on-ice legacy. He figures prominently in many of its exhibits, which include a number of Lemieux artifacts, including his jersey from the Penguins' first Stanley Cup win in 1991. Last Thanksgiving, the museum unveiled a to-scale replica of Lemieux's hoisting the Cup, a likeness so detailed that players' names are actually engraved on the mock Cup.
It's the most thorough tribute to Lemieux's playing days but certainly not the only one. All around town, there are paintings of Lemieux courtesy of the city's dynamic artistic community. Whether it's on the wall inside a number of local institutions, including several locations of the legendary Primanti Brothers sandwich shops, or on the exterior wall of a building, Lemieux's portrait is everywhere.
For years, Lemieux's legend was captured on an 11-story mural that took four weeks to paint on a building exterior. The building hosting the mural, on which Lemieux appears alongside fellow local sports legends Roberto Clemente, Jack Lambert and Bill Mazeroski, was torn down in 1997. But Lemieux's prominent place among Pittsburgh's artists and local establishments remains.
"Really anywhere around the city you stumble across some sort of large-scale tribute to Mario. He definitely made an impact on the city during his playing days and then helping the team from bankruptcy and bringing it back to life," said Erik Greenawalt, an area chalk artist who has drawn Lemieux's portrait a number of times. "I think the artistic community in Pittsburgh definitely latches on to sports heroes. He definitely ranks up there among our list of the elites."
Nowhere is Lemieux's influence felt greater in Pittsburgh than in the philanthropic and medical community. His foundation was launched after Lemieux's bout with Hodgkin's disease in 1993. Since then, the organization has raised and contributed more than $23 million to cancer research and patient care around Pittsburgh. The fruits of its labor are everywhere.
At Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, you'll find the Mario Lemieux Lymphoma Center for Children. Stop by Hillman Cancer Center and there's the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers. Visit the Children's Home of Pittsburgh and you'll see the Lemieux Family Center, which provides a pleasant space for families of children recovering from cancer.
The scope of that influence expanded with the Austin's Playroom initiative, a network of child-friendly havens around Pittsburgh for kids encountering serious medical problems. Undertaken by Lemieux's wife, Nathalie, the idea came after their child, Austin, was born premature and spent 71 days in neonatal intensive care.
"Way beyond his athletic talent, there's also his role in the philanthropic community and the medical community," Madarasz said. "People have incredible respect for him and the time he's dedicated to larger issues here in Pittsburgh."
The incredible local legacy Lemieux has established away from hockey is inescapable in Pittsburgh. But with Crosby -- who lived with the Lemieuxs during the early part of his career and lives in Nova Scotia in the offseason -- close to winning his third Stanley Cup with the Penguins, which would surpass Lemieux's total of two titles won as a player, it does raise the obvious question: How will Crosby's legacy in the city compare once he walks away from the game?
Every indication is that he has already formed the foundation of his own formidable presence around Pittsburgh. The sports museum is set to undertake a major expansion that will feature plenty more Crosby artifacts upon its completion. In recent years, he has also spearheaded the local Little Penguins youth hockey program.
Naturally, his portraits have begun to appear around town alongside Lemieux's. But in perhaps the greatest testament to his increasing influence around Pittsburgh, he has being considered for the greatest honor that can be bestowed upon any Pittsburgh resident: a spot on the wall at the original Primanti Brothers restaurant.
"Hopefully next we're going to put it up," said Toni Haggerty, who has managed the restaurant's original location on 18th Street for 43 years. "Those hockey players are all nice, but Mario is a bit different. He's such a nice person.
"Like Crosby is now."