In 1993, hockey player Mario Lemieux was at the peak of his career. He’d just come off two consecutive Stanley Cup wins with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and was on track to set a new NHL scoring record. Then, Hodgkin’s lymphoma hit. He was forced to miss two months of play for chemotherapy treatments, and sat out the 1994-95 season due to back surgery and complications from chemo-related anemia. His world was effectively turned upside-down. When he laced up his skates again in 1995, he was a changed man: not just a gifted hockey player, but a philanthropist, too.
Lemieux founded the Mario Lemieux Foundation in 1993, shortly after his diagnosis, almost as if he’d been planning the move all along and the cancer was just the push he needed. It’s a health foundation, devoted mainly to medical research—cancer is a big favorite, no surprise there—with grants to children’s hospitals and homes as well, inspired by Lemieux's son Austin, who was born prematurely in 1996.
The foundation’s most recent gift is the continuation of a relationship that’s spanned decades: $2.5 million to the Children’s Hospital Pittsburgh, to establish the Mario Lemieux Lymphoma Center for Children and Young Adults. “I was fortunate to have a type of lymphoma that has proven treatments with good outcomes,” Lemieux says, of the latest gift. “I want to create a place of hope for kids and young adults and their families who are diagnosed with lymphomas that have no known cures.”
The MLF’s first gift to the CHP came in 2002, when they endowed a chair in Pediatric Oncology Research for $1 million. Later, in 2005, the hospital established the Mario Lemieux Foundation Endowment for Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Research with a $1.6 million gift. The gift also funded the creation of two new playrooms for the families of hospital patients. Clearly, Lemieux’s giving is rooted in the personal. Perhaps he would’ve established a foundation anyway, even without his own scary diagnosis, but cancer gave his philanthropy direction. It’s been enough to inspire two decades of charity—and Lemieux, merely 48 years old, probably has decades more ahead of him.