Owner Operator In his return to the ice, Penguins proprietor Mario Lemieux showed his old magic--and a more engaging personality

January 08, 2001

The massive banner reading LEMIEUX 66, 1984-1997 that had been
suspended from the ceiling of Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena was
lowered in a chilling pregame ceremony on Dec. 27, only to be
replaced by suspended disbelief the moment the puck was dropped.
Mario Lemieux's return to the ice was so astonishing it seemed
fictional. "A movie," Hockey Night in Canada announcer Bob Cole
kept calling it on the air. "My new nickname for Mario is
Batman," said Tom Rooney, the Penguins' chief operating officer.
"A suit-wearing executive by day. At night he puts on his cape
and plays."

After a sabbatical of 44 months, Lemieux--father, team owner and
player again at age 35--stepped into the NHL void, reinvigorating
a league of faceless players and system-mad teams. On his first
night back he needed only 33 seconds to set up a goal against the
Toronto Maple Leafs. Later that evening he scored and then
assisted on a third goal. The 17,148 fans and 20 stunned Maple
Leafs (who played more like unindicted coconspirators than
opponents) witnessed perfection. Lemieux's nearly 21-minute
performance was so impeccable, his accomplishment so pure, that
it had to be reduced to fit our shrunken frame of reference.

The night begged not for the arch praise of NHL commissioner Gary
Bettman, who offered that Lemieux's comeback transcended sport,
or for the exuberance of a local radio commentator, who
proclaimed it Pittsburgh's greatest sporting moment, but
something smaller, some symbolic shortcut to capturing the
essence of the most important regular-season game in years. The
standing ovations (numerous) were too raucous, the television
ratings (a record locally, double ESPN's usual numbers in the
U.S., playoff-sized in Canada) were too obvious, the tributes
(universal) were too fulsome--at least compared to the homage
Lemieux received the following day. Next to his stall at the
Penguins' suburban practice rink was a splendid wooden box with
WELCOME BACK carved on the top and several bottles of red wine
inside bearing Lemieux labels, a gift from a local wine merchant.
There. Vintage Lemieux.

The return was simply deja vu Lemieux, who always has accepted
his excellence with a Gallic shrug. A convergence of
considerations--an age that dictated a comeback now or never; the
long-term health of Lemieux's investment in the Penguins; his own
health; his only son's wish to see his father play; his affinity
for the Pittsburgh players; a brooding Jaromir Jagr; a chance at
another Stanley Cup; the NHL's welcome, though sometimes
stuttering, crackdown on slashing and hockey's other dark arts;
the threat of his records being surpassed by mere hockey
mortals--triggered a decision that touched off spasms of
excitement throughout a league that barely bothered to wave
goodbye the first time.

His number 66 wasn't lowered--with Mario's four-year-old, Austin,
eyes wide, mouth agape, at the rink's edge--so Lemieux could be a
ceremonial player. He had come back from injury and illness
earlier in his career, and he had the hubris to think that in the
eight weeks after he began working out on Nov. 1 he could sweat
out three-plus years of cigars, fine French reds and golf and
perform at a rarefied level. He returned not to be the Mario the
Magnificent of a decade ago, a goal-a-game terror who would strip
defensemen and sell their parts for scrap, but to be the
connect-the-dots forward who, after missing almost two seasons
because of back operations and Hodgkin's disease treatments,
returned to win two more scoring titles. His game now, as then,
is a comfortable 160 feet. There's no messy backchecking. With
this return he also ceded the traditional center's down-low
defensive coverage to linemate Jan Hrdina (although listed as a
center, Lemieux is a de facto left wing) and loitered near the
blue line, waiting for a breakout pass, effectively denying the
Maple Leafs' defensemen a chance to pinch. On the power play, he
set up along the left half-boards, practically begging penalty
killers to overplay him, creating chances for Alexei Kovalev to
shoot from the point.

Lemieux didn't merely reset the clock to 1997, he also slowed the
second hand by pacing the game to his speeds. When he scored
midway through the second period (his 614th regular-season goal
and his first since April 11, 1997, the day Tiger Woods shot a 66
in the second round at Augusta on the way to his first major
championship), an otherwise languid Lemieux hurtled into the
offensive zone like a six-year-old toward the tree on Christmas
morning to convert a Jagr pass. Jagr, who had been mired in 17th
place in NHL scoring upon Lemieux's return and had twice asked to
be traded, gamboled like a puppy and finished with four points in
the 5-0 win. If Jagr keeps grinning, Lemieux, backchecking or no,
will have done more than his share of the heavy lifting.

Lemieux has made other changes, dropping his guard, offering
enticing glimpses into his mind and his motivation. If the
Lemieux who had an empty-net goal and three assists in a 5-3 win
against the Ottawa Senators last Saturday in his second game back
is the vintage Lemieux, this new Lemieux, to squeeze the final
drop out of an analogy, is a bottle of fine wine that has finally
been uncorked. Mostly a name-rank-and-serial-number guy until the
day he retired after the Penguins' first-round playoff loss to
the Philadelphia Flyers in 1997, Lemieux now volunteers
information and spins yarns.

At the Dec. 12 press conference confirming his comeback, he
teared up while relating how Austin, who weighed two pounds, five
ounces at birth and spent the first 71 days of his life in the
hospital, had asked to see his father play. Following his first
practice on Dec. 19, Lemieux announced he had found a pair of
figure skates that frisky defenseman Darius Kasparaitis had left
in Lemieux's locker. After the morning skate on the day of the
game against Toronto, Mario said that Austin was requesting a hat
trick. He even wore a microphone for TV during the game and gave
NHL Productions total access in the dressing room. (This comeback
truly was a movie.) Lemieux had been a stand-up guy before
retirement--stubborn, principled, scornful of the NHL as a "garage
league" when he could no longer handle the interference penalties
plaguing the game--but now he was on the verge of being a
stand-up.

"I don't think I've changed," Lemieux said two weeks ago. "My
personality's the same, but being away from the game changed me a
little bit in the sense that I've learned it's important to deal
with the media and fans. I didn't enjoy the attention because I'm
a private person, but now I realize how important it is to
promote the game."

Lemieux's transformation into the face of the game is as
startling a before-and-after as any cheesy weight-loss photos in
the back of a women's magazine. Judging by the beefed-up schedule
of Penguins games on ESPN2 and the ticket-buying surge for his
first three road games, in Washington, Boston and on Long Island,
hockey couldn't be happier. Lemieux has gone from getting tepid
applause during his finale in Philadelphia almost four years
ago--nothing like the gushing in Ottawa that accompanied Wayne
Gretzky's last road game two years later--to engendering the sort
of adulation the NHL hasn't seen since Gretzky retired, which
ushered in a yawn of a new era. "The problem is no one stepped up
after Wayne left," says Terry Murray, the former Florida Panthers
coach. "On the ice the league was still getting tremendous
performances from Jagr and [Florida's Pavel] Bure, but the other
part was missing--the warm, fuzzy feeling about the game. Lemieux
can be the ambassador that he missed out on being the first
time."

"Mario is the bright color of the game," Detroit Red Wings center
Igor Larionov says. "He will make the game enjoyable again
because he brings finesse and imagination. People want to see a
Monet, a Rembrandt at work. Whenever he's on the ice, he's
capable of producing a masterpiece or at least the unpredictable
or unexpected. It's art, hockey performed at its highest skill
level. If people are appreciating him more now, it's like an
artist who gains the proper recognition only after he passes
away. But he lives again."

If anything, Lemieux, with a 10th-grade education but an MBA in
life, understands money. He rescued the Penguins from bankruptcy
in September 1999, acquiring about 35% of the team for $5 million
cash and the $20 million he was owed in deferred money. (Lemieux
is still owed another $20 million in deferred compensation,
according to Ken Sawyer, Pittsburgh's chief financial officer.)
There might have been other ways to collect his back pay--"It
would have been easier if I'd let the team relocate to Portland
and gotten my money [from the new owner]," Lemieux says--but none
that would have brought him the psychic income of owning his
former club in his adopted hometown.

In Lemieux's first year as principal owner Pittsburgh turned
losses of $16 million from the previous season into a profit of
$47,000. While tickets sales were up almost 1,000 a game this
season, there were still nearly 1,500 empties per night at the
16,958-seat Mellon Arena until Lemieux announced his comeback.
The Penguins sold 50,000 tickets that first week and figure to
sell out all but a handful of their remaining 22 home games. The
windfall kicks in seriously next year when Pittsburgh can expand
its season-ticket base, work new sponsorship deals and raise the
rates for dasherboard and on-ice signage. Although he has
publicly committed only for this season, Lemieux told SI he plans
to play three or four more years. "We had a five-year-plan when
Mario bought the team, but Mario's comeback has fast-forwarded us
to the end of Year Three," says Rooney. "If we max out our
revenue in the arena, then it's easier to go [to the city, county
and state] and talk about a new building."

Should the Penguins, who were 17-14-6-1 through Tuesday, make a
playoff run in the weak Eastern Conference, civic giddiness might
be as powerful a force as economics in replacing the 40-year-old
Igloo, the oldest NHL rink, just as voters' emotion over a
Broncos Super Bowl victory in 1997 hastened the building of a new
football stadium in Denver. The Penguins have purchased land
across the street from Mellon and have done a feasibility study
on an 18,500-seat arena. If the Igloo was the House Mario Filled,
the prospective new arena would be the House Mario Built--the
ultimate payoff. As Montreal Canadiens assistant coach Guy
Carbonneau says, "This comeback is a $400 million business
transaction."

Lemieux's first two games were the easy part. There are going to
be matches not played under the yellow caution flag, nights when
his skill and confidence won't carry him. There will be
determined defensemen, games played on consecutive nights, long
flights. Pittsburgh is considering moving its midweek home games
from Wednesday, long a franchise staple, to Tuesday next season
to limit the back-to-back games Lemieux will have to play, but
even the face of hockey is going to look haggard sometime in the
coming months. "A couple of weeks ago he could get on a plane and
play golf for three or four days," Carbonneau says. "He can't do
that now. I don't know how his mind is going to work when he goes
through a tough time, like a slump or if his back hurts again or
if he gets injured. I just hope he came back for the right
reason. If he did, then the mind can overcome anything."

The right reason is a four-year-old wearing a mushroom haircut
and a number 66 sweater who stuck his head into the dressing room
after his father's first game and said, "I saw you. I saw you."

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID KLUTHO [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO BACK IN STYLE The 6'4" Lemieux was as imposing as ever, getting seven points in two games, including four in this match against Ottawa. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO MOVING NIGHT As Austin (far left) and wife Nathalie watched, Mario's number was brought down to the ice. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO

"My new nickname for Mario is Batman," says Rooney. "A
suit-wearing executive by day. At night he puts on his cape and
plays."

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)