MARIO LEMIEUX: On hockey, home life, health and his higher purpose
By Carol Crenna
In 1993, hockey legend Mario Lemieux was enjoying the greatest season of his career. Then he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Hockey fans will fondly recall Mario’s courage in overcoming the disease in the middle of the 1992-93 season. On the morning Mario finished his last radiation treatment, he took a plane to Philadelphia, scored a goal and an assist against the Flyers, and then led his team to a 17-game winning streak, establishing a new NHL record.
Mario, who won six scoring titles and three Most Valuable Player awards, also fulfilled a dream in 2002 when he returned to the ice and defeated the US to lead the Canadian Olympic hockey team to its first gold medal since 1952.
Mario staged another type of comeback when he purchased the near bankrupt Pittsburgh Penguins with investment partners and became chairman, and the once failing franchise has won three Stanley Cups with top players including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Although Mario has been cancer-free for 21 years, his experience in overcoming Hodgkin’s has led him to devote much of his time to the Mario Lemieux Foundation.
Founded in the same year he developed the disease, he continues to raise funds to help reach another type of goal: a cure for cancer. Mario discusses his home life, his health and his foundation with me.
CAROL: Your life and career have been all about comebacks. Where do you get your motivation and drive from? Did your upbringing have anything to do with it?
MARIO: I have always had high aspirations in hockey and in life, and I credit that drive to my parents.
CAROL: Is it true that you are still married to your high school sweetheart?
MARIO: Yes. Nathalie and I met at my cousin’s wedding and have been together ever since. She is the best wife and mother you could ask for. She is also quite an athlete — she plays paddle tennis and has a great golf game!
CAROL: Has there been any “positive” aspect in your life that has come from the experience of having cancer?
MARIO: Having cancer did change my outlook… It is the reason I started the foundation. My battle with Hodgkin’s disease made me realize how fragile life can be. It also helped me see how fortunate I am to be involved in the greatest game in the world.
But I know there are many people who are not as fortunate as I am. That is why the Mario Lemieux Foundation continues to be important to me, and why I devote time to raising funds for it.
Our foundation’s tag line is “Giving others a chance to win,” and that’s exactly what I want to do: give others in unfortunate situations a chance. And I think our researchers are doing just that. Their findings provide patients with opportunities to live longer and enable them not to have to experience the treatments that I had during my own time with cancer.
I’m just happy that Nathalie and I are able to give back.
CAROL: The type of cancer that you were diagnosed with is considered one of the most curable forms. What do you think has enabled that to be true?
MARIO: The research being conducted on Hodgkin’s, and the progress they have made even since I had cancer, is remarkable. I’m certain that one day a cure will be found.
Our researchers in the Foundation lab at the Hillman Center (part of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute) are working on progressive treatments, cancer vaccines and gene therapy. It’s very fascinating to see the progress.
CAROL: What are the highlights of working with The Lemieux Foundation? And challenges of working within the non-profit sector?
MARIO: The challenge, of course, is to continually raise funds to support our initiatives. In this economy, charitable giving is always the first thing cut out of a budget.
However, we have many long-standing sponsors and supporters who have been very generous. Highlights include hearing so many stories from cancer survivors and their positive outlook on life.
CAROL: The Lemieux Foundation donated millions of dollars to establish the Mario Lemieux Centers for Patient Care and Research. What is the “patient care” part of this facility?
MARIO: The Mario Lemieux Centers for Patient Care and Research is really a centre without walls. Cancer affects the entire family and not just the patient. Our areas within these centres are tailored to provide assistance to the entire family, such as in our Austin’s Playrooms.
CAROL: Your Playroom Project sounds wonderful. How did this concept come about?
MARIO: My wife, Nathalie, actually came up with the idea. Our son Austin was born prematurely at just 26 weeks old and spent 71 days in the NICU. This is stressful enough with just one child, but we had two older daughters at the time.
As Nathalie and I were taking care of Austin, there was no place, or no one, to engage the lively minds and provide a comfortable calming environment for Austin’s sisters Lauren and Stephanie. It was then that Nathalie thought of the idea to raise funds for playrooms at hospitals in western Pennsylvania.
The Playroom Project was established and seeks to benefit families and improve the quality of a child’s hospital experience whether they are a patient or a visitor. Nathalie serves as Chair of The Playroom Project, and each room is called Austin’s Playroom. I’m very proud of her efforts; we now have 23 playrooms. We also have a Sibling Center and a Family Center.
CAROL: Are any located outside of Pennsylvania?
MARIO: All of the playrooms are in Pennsylvania, however someday we hope to bring them to hospitals in Canada.
CAROL: Do you think that diet, exercise, stress reduction and developing close relationships plays an important role in cancer prevention?
MARIO: I think that a healthy lifestyle has proved to be helpful in preventing many forms of cancer, but there are exceptions. Prevention is a key, but I also think that screening and early detection is critical to long term success. If you are going through cancer, a support system including friends and family are the most essential.
CAROL: How do you maintain your health now, after retiring from playing hockey, since your career has gone from a very physical one to a corporate one? You must have been very fit.
MARIO: Yes, as a professional athlete, I was in great shape back then. I have tried to maintain that after my retirement. I try to work out as often as I can and I do pay attention to what I eat. I play a lot of golf; it’s a great game and is always a challenge. And Nathalie and my four kids keep me busy!
CAROL: Back issues have been troublesome for you. How have you been able to deal with them?
MARIO: As I said, I’m a big believer in staying fit, and I regularly stretch so as to avoid further back problems.
CAROL: You have traded your stick for a club. Do you still play hockey for fun?
MARIO: I am the “assistant” coach for my son’s amateur hockey team, which gets me on the ice frequently.
CAROL: Did having children change your point of view about health issues?
MARIO: I’m very involved in my kid’s lives. So being healthy is extremely important to me. I want to be around for them for a long time.
CAROL: Your golf tournaments have been overwhelmingly successful at fundraising, raising over $12 million. Could you give some highlights of your private tournament?
MARIO: My golf event, called the Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational, is held at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, Pennsylvania in June. We play two days of Pro-Am golf and one day of celebrity-only golf.
They play a very intimate round of golf – playing as a twosome with their celebrity. And, of course, all of the proceeds benefit the foundation. Some of the guys playing have included Brett Hull, Sidney Crosby, Jerry Rice, Marcus Allen, Michael Jordan, Dan Marino, Jerome Bettis, Emmitt Smith, Ben Roethlisberger, Marcus Allen, Eric Dickerson…
CAROL: Is it true that if you didn’t become a hockey player you would have been a golf pro?
CAROL: Do you still have ties with your Canadian roots?
MARIO: Definitely. We try to get back to Canada whenever time permits. Both of our families are still there, so those are very strong ties.
Original article by Carol Crenna, featured in VISTA Magazine