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Joe Battista: Golfing with Mario Lemieux, Jim McMahon and my Daughter

by on June 21, 2012 6:39 AM

Last week was a “Back to the Future” experience for me, as I was a guest at the Mario Lemieux Foundation Charity Classic at Falling Rock at Nemacolin Woodlands.

It was my first trip to what Forbes Magazine called, “one of the finest hotels in the world”. Nestled in the Laurel Highlands, the resort was everything that I had heard and then some.

My wife was not able to join me, so my daughter, Brianna, a college junior, was along for the trip. It was a good Daddy-daughter bonding time and a great chance for her to meet a lot of my old colleagues from back in my days working for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins from 1982-85.

One of my all-time favorites from my early career was former NHL goalie Eddie “EJ” Johnston. He and his wife Diane were there and we took pictures and caught up on our families. EJ was the coach and general manager of the Penguins during my time in the Pens front office and is still one of the classiest guys in the NHL. He also had a son who attended PSU and was very excited about all that is going on in “Hockey Valley.”

Other celebrities included: Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, Miami Dolphins and Pitt All-American QB Dan Marino, 1980 “Miracle on Ice” USA Olympic Team Captain Mike Eruzione, Cowboys Running back Emmitt Smith, Oakland Raider Marcus Allen, Penguin and Flyer star Rick Tocchet, Dallas Stars standout Brett Hull and Pirates great Bill Mazeroski.

Of course, “Le Magnifique” Mario Lemieux was present with his wife Natalie and their family.

Mario is one of hockey’s all-time best players and among the game’s greatest ambassadors. While at the same time gracious and extremely humble, Lemieux still strikes an imposing figure in any circles and looks like he could lace up the skates and jump right back on the ice and still be the dominant player on the ice.

I met him when I was a 24-year-old third-year marketing assistant for the Pens and he was an 18-year-old phenom and first overall draft pick destined to turn Pittsburgh into a hockey town. He barely spoke English when he arrived in 1984, and thanks to the Matthews family, a local youth hockey family who opened their home to Mario when he was a rookie, he was able to make a smoother transition into the culture of the Steel City.

I happened to coach the Matthew boys, Dave and Mike, on Team Pittsburgh and can only imagine what it must have been like to have a budding superstar sharing your house as a youngster.

Mario is a class act and as genuine now as he was when he arrived with Herculean expectations in 1984. The turnout at his Foundation's signature event speaks volumes about his reputation among the very elite pro athletes across all sports and the “who’s who” of business and industry in Western Pa.

PSU alumnus Greg Pilewicz, President of Esmark, Inc. and his lovely wife Maura (a PSU alumna and former PSU cheerleader) were my gracious hosts. When the starter asked me my name, to see who our celebrity would be, he looked at the list and simply started to laugh.

He said, “You are in for one of the most fun rounds of golf you will ever play.” He pointed to the guy golfing in his bare feet with the funny golf shorts and funky golf hat. It turns out that former Bears Super Bowl QB Jim McMahon was our celebrity.

What a hoot. Talk about your fun, albeit different, rounds of golf. As we arrived at our first hole I suddenly heard country music playing where you would normally expect relative quiet. It was coming out of Jim McMahon’s golf cart.

As we warmed up, I assumed the music would be turned off when we stepped up to the tee. Next thing I knew Jim was up swinging away! It suddenly dawned on me that this would be the way the round would be played all afternoon.

I must admit that I was skeptical at best that I would be able to concentrate while country music was blaring out of the cart. I stepped up with my brand new Taylor Made RBZ driver in my hand and proceeded to crush a drive down the middle of the fairway and a good 30 yards past my average driving distance.

It was probably a combination of extra concentration due to the crowd around the tee box and the need to “tune out” the music along with the fact that I was holding brand new golf club technology replacing my 10-year-old former driver. Ah, modern technology is sometimes worth the cost.

As it turned out I played way above myself in the “best ball of four” event and actually found the music extremely relaxing and it really did make the round fun. I must also admit that some of the other groups would initially shoot us a dirty look as our carts pulled up near them with a Keith Urban, Garth Brooks or Willie Nelson song blasting out of the cart.

But as soon as they realized it was Jim McMahon’s group their mood lightened up and would usually include some funny quip aimed at our team’s affable celebrity. Jim, to his credit, never skipped a beat and took it all in stride.

We finished one shot off the pace for one of the team prizes and, as predicted, had one of the most fun and memorable days on a golf course ever. Jim would be the first to admit that he is far from your average personality (I still find it hard to believe he played at BYU), but I found him to be genuine, funny, friendly and certainly not a shrinking violet when it came to opinions about the issue of concussions in the NFL.

After a quick shower and change of clothes we were treated to a reception on the garden terrace at the “Chateau Lafayette” at Nemacolin Woodlands. We arrived at the main ballroom for the banquet where my old friend and longtime KDKA sportscaster Bob Pompeani was the Emcee for the evening. Mario Lemieux spoke to the crowd of over 400 golfers and guests.

The Mario Lemieux Foundation raises funds for cancer and neonatal research as well as Austin's Playroom Project, an initiative that creates sibling playrooms in medical facilities and was inspired by Mario’s son Austin.

This weekend, Pittsburgh will once again be in the spotlight of the hockey world as it plays host to the 2012 NHL entry draft. Next April, Pittsburgh’s Consol Arena will host the NCAA Men’s “Frozen Four.”

Thanks to the “Big Guy”, we hockey fans have been in hockey heaven since 1984, and a lot of kids have benefited from his vision and his service to the community.

Mario really is the “Magnificent One."

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From ice hockey to Intercollegiate Athletics and Smeal, JoeBa has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities. Battista was an influential player in the effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley. He is now Vice President of Hockey Operations for the Buffalo Sabres.
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