One of the harsh realities of being a professional athlete is knowing there’s only so much you can do to avoid succumbing to an injury; in the overwhelming majority of cases, it’s not a matter of “if” but rather a matter of “when.”
That’s especially true when you make a living in the NHL, as the brutal nature of hockey means basically every player who steps onto the ice is going to encounter some sort of setback thanks to the grind they’re subjected to.
Mario Lemieux was no stranger to injuries over the course of his legendary career with the Pittsburgh Penguins. During his 17 seasons with the franchise, the elite center grappled with tendinitis in his hip, a herniated disc, and an assortment of other back issues that deteriorated to a point where he needed a trainer to tie his skates for him.
While hockey undoubtedly contributed to those ailments, the same can’t be said for the devastating diagnosis Lemieux received in the midst of the 1992-93 season.
Lemieux went on an absolute tear at the start of that campaign. Over the course of his first 40 games, he scored 39 goals (including 18 he put in the net during the 12-game scoring streak that kicked off the season) and 65 assists, and it seemed like he had a very real shot to break Wayne Gretzky single-season points record of 215.
Unfortunately, things came to a screeching halt on January 12, 1993, which is when the Penguins announced the 27-year-old superstar would be leaving the team to seek treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the form of cancer he was diagnosed with after having a lump removed from his neck.
It was obviously an awful development—but it was also one that set the stage for one of the most dramatic comeback stories in the history of sports.
How Mario Lemieux staged the ultimate storybook ending after beating cancer
Lemieux was lucky enough to catch the diagnosis early, and doctors were not only confident the cancer wasn’t life-threatening but speculated he could be able to return to the ice within less than two months.
However, he was still facing an uphill battle thanks to the fairly taxing regimen that required him to undergo 22 separate rounds of radiation therapy. That would take a toll on anyone who’s subjected to it, but the fatigue and weight loss that tend to accompany that manner of treatment can be particularly brutal side effects for someone who plays a sport for a living.
Lemieux received the first round of radiation at the start of February and successfully completed the last one a little over a month later on the morning of March 2nd.
While most people would probably try to take it easy, the Montreal native was not like most people, as he got on a plane in Pittsburgh to meet his teammates in Philadelphia ahead of that evening’s matchup against the Flyers.
No one was really sure if Lemieux would actually suit up for the contest when he arrived at The Spectrum, and no one would have blamed him for opting to wait before making his grand return.
However, all eyes were on No. 66 when he hit the rink for warmups, and he picked up right where he left off by netting a goal and an assist in a game where the Flyers rained on his parade a bit by winning by a score of 5-4.
However, the result of the tilt was largely an afterthought.
If you need any more evidence that highlights just how dramatic the comeback was, the fact that the notoriously hostile fans in Philly gave the captain of their bitter rivals a standing ovation ahead of the game should tell you everything you need to know.
Lemieux continued to dominate for the remainder of the season, and he ultimately posted a league-leading 160 points—12 more than the closest player—despite only playing 60 games (which, again, was due to the fact that he successfully battled cancer in the middle of the year).
It doesn’t get much more iconic than that.