The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Pro

January 25, 2006

MIKE MASTOVICH | Le Magnifique and his magnificent impact

Chiefs forward J.B. Bittner probably wouldn’t be playing for Johnstown this season had it not been for Mario Lemieux.

The Pittsburgh Penguins Hall of Famer and two-time Stanley Cup winner gracefully and probably unknowingly steered Bittner, a Pittsburgh native, to hockey.

Lemieux’s incredible gift for scoring goals, dishing out assists and making a winner out of the once-hapless Penguins during the late 1980s and early 1990s swayed Bittner and many others of his hockey generation to play the sport.

“I was born in ’82. When I started playing hockey, Mario was playing (for the Penguins),” said Bittner, 23, the Chiefs’ third-leading scorer with 20 points. “Everyone pretended they were Mario when they were little. He was a big deal.

“All the guys I grew up playing with, none of us probably would have grown up playing hockey if he wasn’t in Pittsburgh,” added Bittner, who included another Pittsburgh native, R.J. Umberger of the Philadelphia Flyers, on that list. “Most of us started playing because of him.”

Lemieux officially announced his second retirement on Tuesday. The decision was a surprise, even though the 40-year-old Lemieux learned in December that he has atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can cause his pulse to flutter wildly.

After 690 goals, 1,033 assists and a NHL seventh-best all-time 1,723 points, No. 66 will have his jersey raised to the rafters at Mellon Arena for a second time. The owner in Lemieux hopes that jersey eventually will hang over a brand-new Pittsburgh arena, but that’s another story.

Westmont’s Don Hall, a former Johnstown Jets star whose No. 9 hangs at Cambria County War Memorial Arena, is a friend of Lemieux’s. Hall wasn’t surprised by Tuesday’s announcement.

The successful Johnstown businessman played on the same championship Jets team as Penguins assistant general manager Eddie Johnston. The long-time friends had discussed the issue of Lemieux’s health recently, and Hall even wrote a letter to Lemieux after his ailment was made public last month.

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