Thursday, November 27, 2014

A special report -- The evolution of Mario Lemieux: 30 years in Pittsburgh

This is the first of eight chapters. Click here for the full story and an interactive display with video highlights of Mario Lemieux’s career and more photos.
The friendly voice over the speaker says to come in, and the black iron gate rises and retreats. Inside, behind the towering green shrubs and ivy-covered brick walls that fortify his home, Mario Lemieux is waiting on the veranda.
Climbing the steps, there is so much to take in. Water springs from a sun-drenched fountain His 11-year-old chocolate lab, Tara, ambles around. Lemieux reaches out his big mitt for a handshake. In just a few seconds, it is very clear that, in building the immaculate terrace that overlooks a sprawling backyard complete with a small pool and putting green, he has missed no detail.
Lemieux is prepared, having placed two small bottles of water on an end table that sits between a small sofa and a deck chair. The veranda’s red brick facade provides shade on a serene morning. He does not have to do any of this. He does not like to talk about himself, so why is he? Maybe it’s just time. He is not a nostalgic guy, though. Up in the attic, a box of mementos from his early days in Pittsburgh gathers dust. It was given to him by a family friend after his battle with Hodgkin’s disease, and it contains some of the mail he received during those trying days. He has never opened it.
“I don’t sit here and just think about what I did in the past,” he says.
He is constantly evolving, has been since he rode in a black sedan with his father and agent through the Fort Pitt Tunnel and first laid eyes on the impressive skyline of a then-distressed city with a laughable hockey franchise.
With this fall marking his and Pittsburgh’s 30th anniversary together, Lemieux knows there are questions, and he has agreed to answer them. He will be honest but understated, open yet wary of going too far, many of his responses ending short of revelation and often with a quick smile, as if to say, “Trust me, that’s really all I’ve got.” English is his go-to language now, the French left for talks with his wife Nathalie or close friend Pierre LaRouche in the owner’s suite at Consol Energy Center.
This is as relaxed as any outsider will see him, in a white golf shirt, navy blue shorts and crocs, his left leg tucked under his right as he leans his neatly groomed visage into his left hand. At 6-foot-4, he is as strapping as he was as a young centerman, if not more; the massive hands he inherited from his father, a painter, no longer stick out, fitting his regal stature. The features of his made-for-caricature face are more pronounced with age, and the one-time famous mullet of hockey hair is now cropped short, showing a few hints of gray. Lemieux wears 49 as gracefully as he skated at 19, 29 and 39.
The years have flown by, he says, and the last two decades have been here, attempting to blend in among Pittsburgh’s most affluent citizens in this leafy western suburb. This is a man who approved every nut and bolt of the first home he built, in Mt. Lebanon, made sure it was constructed to his specifications, and left it five years later because he wanted more privacy. He found it in Sewickley, but he still couldn’t escape his own mind.

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