Bartkowski: If not for Mario Lemieux, I wouldn’t be playing hockey

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It all must be a little surreal for Bruins defenseman Matt Bartkowski.

A native of the Pittsburgh suburb of Mt. Lebanon, Bartkowski is about to face off against the team he used to support as a youngster, with a trip to the Stanley Cup finals on the line.

Oh, and one of his Boston teammates happens to be one of his boyhood idols, Jaromir Jagr.

In fact, Bartkowski, 24, told reporters today that he grew up with posters of Jagr and Mario Lemieux on his wall.

He also credited Lemieux, now the owner of the Penguins, for playing hockey in the first place.

“I was part of the Lemieux era and I probably wouldn’t have been skating if he wasn’t there,” said Bartkowski, per Dan Cagen of the MetroWest Daily News.

Before Pittsburgh drafted Lemieux first overall in 1984, the Penguins were on the verge of financial collapse. Average attendance at the old Civic Arena was a mere 6,839 during the 1983-84 season, which saw the Pens post a record of 16-58-6. (See: this Sports Illustrated article.)

Fast forward to the present (past another financial crisis barely averted for the club) and it’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin that are helping youth-hockey participation rates skyrocket in Western Pennsylvania.

As we wrote this morning, Bartkowski, along with defensive partner Johnny Boychuk, could be seeing a lot of Crosby in the Bruins-Penguins series.

“It’s kind of cool that I get to play playoffs in my home town,” Bartkowski said, “but at the end of the day I’m on Boston and that’s Pittsburgh and we’re there to win.”