By MIKE MASTOVICH
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.
“I had known about it a little earlier,” Hall said of the retirement. “I was surprised. I saw him on Saturday on national TV (stating the Penguins were for sale) where he didn’t talk about it. I knew he was contemplating it.”
Lemieux retired in 1997 after playing through back problems and a 1993 cancer scare.
The big center returned to the ice in 2000-01 and played since then despite being limited by injuries, including two major hip problems.
The adversity only magnified Lemieux’s magnificent impact.
“In my estimation, he was the greatest player that ever played the game,” Hall said. “(Wayne) Gretzky has all the stats, but for the years Mario played and what he went through, in my opinion he was the greatest. He could do things little guys could do, but he was 6-foot-4. He had all the tricks a little guy could do. He was one of the few guys that could actually carry a team.”
Lemieux did carry a talented Penguins team to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992.
But on Tuesday, Lemieux pondered a future that didn’t include him on the Penguins roster.
“It was kind of weird when we were watching it, but I think everybody expected it,” said Westmont native Dana Heinze, an assistant equipment manager for the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. “The buzz going around was he was going to do that.
“Mario’s doing it at the right time with the popularity of Sidney Crosby,” Heinze said of Pittsburgh’s rookie sensation. “The team will be in good hands. They are struggling but people forget that when Mario came into the league the Penguins weren’t exactly lighting it on fire. Sidney Crosby is the real deal. In the coming years with (goalie Marc-Andre) Fleury developing and other guys stepping up, they’re going to be a force.”
Hall and Lemieux are both members of Laurel Valley Golf Club.
In fact, friends of Hall often joke to the once prolific goal-scorer about his role at the club.
“When Mario joined Laurel Valley,” noted Hall, “the guys said, ‘How does it feel to be the second-best hockey player at Laurel Valley?’ ”
On a more serious note, Hall offered Lemieux some advice in his letter. Hall said he has had similar health issues and offered his perspective.
“I told him I live a normal life, but of course I don’t play hockey in the National Hockey League,” Hall said. “I told him I don’t see why you can’t move on and live a normal life but just not put hockey in it.
“The time is right. There is no sense going on there and not being able to play up to his standards. I just wrote him a little note. I put at the end, ‘Mario, it’s hard to let it go.’ ”
Bittner credited Lemieux for reviving the Penguins as a player, helping the team through bankruptcy as an owner, and rejuvenating the Pens with his comeback. The next step might be even more important.
“He can maybe focus on getting a new building,” Bittner said. “He’s pretty much saved the franchise two times now. This is going to be the third time if he can get a building.”