Inside The NHL

December 18, 2000

Super, Mario
The comeback of Mario Lemieux is good news for everyone in the
league

No one in the Penguins' executive offices thought much about
owner Mario Lemieux's taking home a stationary bicycle from the
players' weight room in early November. Nor was there a stir when
Lemieux began coming to the office late or not at all. Employees
did notice, as the month wore on, that Lemieux looked fitter than
he had in years. His handshake seemed firmer, he smiled more, and
in the words of Tom McMillan, Pittsburgh's vice president of
communications, "Mario had this bounce in his step. No one knew
why."

Everyone knows now, and the bounce is reverberating through the
NHL. Lemieux's decision to return to the ice with the Penguins
3 1/2 years after he retired because of back pain and
dissatisfaction with the defensive obstruction that was plaguing
the game is the best thing to happen to the league since the 1994
lockout ended. For the first time since Wayne Gretzky retired
after the 1998-99 season, the NHL has a boffo gate attraction and
a player who can transcend hockey.

Lemieux's gorgeous play between 1984-85 and 1996-97 resulted in
1,494 points in 745 games and induction into the Hall of Fame.
He's a mononymic star who was the most dominant player in the
league when he left. Lemieux, 35, will most likely return to
action on Dec. 27, when Pittsburgh begins a four-game home stand,
and the Penguins, 14-11-3-1 through Sunday, will immediately
become Stanley Cup contenders. In addition to bringing his
unparalleled offensive ability, Lemieux should also keep Jaromir
Jagr, Pittsburgh's supremely talented but often disruptive
captain (SI, Nov. 27), in line. "He's the man, and whatever he
says, I'm going to do it," says Jagr.

"This isn't great for the rest of us in the Eastern Conference,"
says Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, "but it's great for the game. I'd
pay to see Mario play any day." Some of Ruff's money would go to
Lemieux. The comeback will engender an unprecedented conflict:
Lemieux will be a franchise owner and a dues-paying member of the
NHL Players' Association. (There are no league rules prohibiting
an owner from playing.) Lemieux won't vote on NHL issues as
either a player or an owner, but he'll remain his teammates' and
coaches' employer and one of commissioner Gary Bettman's
employers as well. Lemieux rightly points out that the NHL game
has opened up in the last two seasons because of the crackdown on
obstruction and slashing infractions. However, play is as violent
as ever. Should Lemieux thwack a nettlesome checker over the head
with his stick, Bettman would have the unenviable duty of
suspending one of his bosses.

Lemieux, who will pay himself the league average of $1.4 million
for this season, says he "missed the game and missed the
challenge of competing." Cynics who question his motives because
he will gain financially by helping the Penguins sell tickets
miss the larger point. Lemieux's reasons for returning are
irrelevant. The return itself is a blessing.

Montreal's New Coach
Now That's Entertainment

Michel Therrien, the rookie coach who took over the Canadiens
when Alain Vigneault was fired on Nov. 20, is a passionate,
thickly built 37-year-old with porterhouse-sized hands and a
preference for looking people in the eye. He was an only child
raised on the hardscrabble streets of the east end of Montreal,
and he's not far removed from working as a telephone-wire splicer
(the kind of guy you see strapped to the top of a pole during
winter storms) and as a bodyguard for Quebecois pop star Roch
Voisine. Therrien isn't so much intimidated by his new role in
turning around the once mighty Canadiens as he is invigorated.
"This is the biggest challenge of my life," he says. "I'm just
going to be myself."

That's good news for Montreal fans, who know that while working
for Bell Canada, Therrien coached two junior teams to a combined
record of 173-67-10 from 1993-94 through 1996-97. He also guided
the Canadiens' AHL affiliate to a winning record over the past
three seasons, and through Sunday he was 4-5-1-0 with Montreal,
which was 5-13-2-0 before he took over.

Therrien's arrival is also a welcome change for those fans across
North America who enjoy old-time hockey. During his coaching
career Therrien has accosted a referee in a parking lot, fought
both a rival coach and a rival player and employed numerous
techniques to rattle opponents. In addition to pulling tricks
such as slathering a visiting team's bench with wet paint,
Therrien has jeered opposing players relentlessly during matches.
Once, while coaching the Fredericton Canadiens in the minors, he
spat his gum at St. John's Maple Leafs goalie Francis Larivee,
who said, "I think he lost his mind." Other times Therrien's
needling got so intense that goalies would turn to flip him off,
only to have Therrien's team score. "I used to hate him," says
Sabres netminder Martin Biron, who played against Therrien's
clubs in juniors and the minors, "but after a while I respected
him for the success he had."

When asked whether he will bring his more controversial coaching
tactics to the NHL, Therrien grins and says, "I will do anything
to win."

Flyers Fire Ramsay
Team Turmoil Once Again

Flyers general manager Bobby Clarke fired coach Craig Ramsay on
Sunday even though Ramsay had gone 39-27-5 in a brief
regular-season and playoff stint that included taking
Philadelphia to within one game of the Stanley Cup finals last
spring. Ramsay's replacement, assistant Bill Barber, becomes the
Flyers' fifth coach in 3 1/2 years. By keeping his team in
turmoil, Clarke has ensured that Philadelphia will remain less
than the sum of its talented parts.

Clarke felt that the Flyers, who had gone 12-12-4-0 this season
despite several serious injuries, hadn't played hard under
Ramsay. When Clarke called the team to a meeting on Sunday
morning, players assumed he was going to rip them for their
indifferent play. Instead, he informed them of Ramsay's
dismissal.

Clarke also complained during the press conference that the
Flyers lacked direction this season. That's true. Direction comes
from the top, and Clarke hasn't given Philadelphia any for
years.

COLOR PHOTO: PAUL BERESWILL Lemieux's return after a 3 1/2-year retirement figures to boost the Penguins' scoring and attendance. COLOR PHOTO: B. BENNETT/B. BENNETT STUDIOS COLOR PHOTO: C. ANDERSEN/B. BENNETT STUDIOS

WHOM WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE?

PETR SVOBODA
D LIGHTNING
At 34, he's the senior member of Tampa Bay's defense. The
16-year veteran has provided valuable leadership, and through
Sunday he had a goal and three assists in 17 games.

OR

PETR SVOBODA
D MAPLE LEAFS
At 20, he's the junior member of Toronto's defense. The rookie,
who was the Maple Leafs' second-round draft choice in 1998, has
shown promise with a goal and an assist in 12 games.

The Verdict: We'll go with Petr Svoboda--the younger one.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)