As business people, we’re all quite understandably inspired by the big names – the Elon Musks, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffets of this world. And it’s fair enough – these people have all been hugely successful, each in their own way, as innovators, fresh thinkers, smart investors or great strategists. But for me, there’s one person who stands – literally – head and shoulders above these great names from the business world – and it’s someone who might not be that familiar to some.
Ice hockey is a relentlessly tough and fast-paced game. But whenever there’s a bit of respite from the action, fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins can sit back, take a look around them and reflect that everything they have today is down to one man: Mario Lemieux. Lemieux – perhaps predictably nicknamed ‘Super Mario’ as a player – is, in my opinion, the greatest ice hockey player ever to have pulled on a pair of skates.
The team’s saviour
Which is all well and good, I hear you say – but what has any of this got to do with business? Well, Lemieux is a hero for me, not just because he was a great sportsman, or even because he has also shown himself to be a great businessman – but because he has achieved all of this while overcoming huge personal obstacles, and yet has still remained a good and decent human being. That’s a huge achievement, and something I think we can all learn from.
Lemieux’s career began back in 1984, when the Pittsburgh Penguins were in dire trouble. The sporting spectacle was terrible – crowds were down and re-locating the franchise to another city was looking like a real possibility. Then Lemieux appeared on the scene, and despite his size, he showed himself to be a stylish and skilful playmaker, scoring and creating goals from his first game onwards with apparent ease.
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Vision is everything
Which brings me to the first of his qualities that I admire: his vision. At this stage in his career, he could make passes that others couldn’t imagine. He was also scoring highlight-real goals night after night, including one on his very first shot and shift in the NHL. But once his playing career was over, Lemieux showed that he also had vision in the more traditional sense, that we, as we business people might understand it. Once again, the Penguins found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy, but Lemieux, along with a consortium of business partners, stepped in to take over. He bought the team – the first player ever to do this – and then had the vision to build them once again into a successful franchise. The Penguins have now won three more Stanley Cup Championships with Lemieux at the helm to go along with the two he achieved as a player. It took a lot of investment, ambition and nerve but now the Penguins are one of the most valuable franchises in NHL.
No easy wins
I also respect Lemieux’s tenacity and toughness. Obviously these are crucial qualities in a game as unforgiving and brutal as ice hockey, but Lemieux needed to be especially resilient when in in 1993 he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer. He was forced to stop playing in the midst of one of the most successful seasons of his career. After battling the disease with radiation treatment he was able to return later that season – on the day of his final chemotherapy treatment nonetheless. Lemieux’s health problems didn’t stop there however, as he was finally forced to retire in 2006 at age 40 with atrial fibrillation, a potentially serious heart condition.
Lemieux has had to fight hard to win and be successful, and I admire him hugely for that. He has shown himself to be someone with incredible vision both on the ice and off. He translated that practical skill on the rink into an ability to see potential, drive value and have success in the business world.
Doing things the right way
But in the end, Lemieux has gone through all of this and remained a decent person. He is as relentless now as he was as a player in his campaigning to help find a cure for cancer through the Mario Lemieux Foundation.
He is, and always has been, committed to doing things the right way. That commitment along with his loyalty to his teammates, to the Penguins franchise, and to the people of the city of Pittsburgh, is what I find truly inspiring.