For Mario Lemieux this wasn't a hockey game but an insult, one
long Don Rickles routine at his expense. His
linen-and-fine-china Pittsburgh Penguins were trailing 1-0 in
the third period to the fries-with-that expansion Minnesota
Wild, a team that had subdued the Penguins three days before and
touched off an exchange of barbs between Lemieux and Minnesota
coach Jacques Lemaire about the aesthetics of NHL hockey. The
Wild embodies the trapping style of play that helped drive
Lemieux out of hockey in 1997. Now, with nearly 13 minutes
remaining, Lemieux decided he'd had enough. He was going to take
this game and shake some sense into it. He retrieved the puck
deep in the Pittsburgh zone and started out four-on-four, his
body language screaming, This shall not pass.
Lemieux didn't quite go coast-to-coast. He lugged the puck over
the Penguins' blue line, and then the red line, brushing off a
hook by Marian Gaborik as if Gaborik were a piece of lint on his
suit. As he crossed the Wild's blue line, he curled to create
extra space and rifled the puck from 30 feet. The shot, from
inside the right face-off circle, handcuffed goaltender Manny
Fernandez and went in. It was a goal scorer's goal--a shot that
pluggers would have buried in Fernandez's glove or pads. Nine
minutes later, when Lemieux fired the puck toward the net from
the right half boards, it struck a skate in front and caromed
past Fernandez for the game-winner. This might not have been a
battle for hockey's soul, but it wasn't a bad tussle for two
points: Mario 2, Minnesota 1. Who's the hockey puck now?
There's only one real story in the NHL these days. The other
daily comings and goings--Wayne Gretzky's purchase of the
Phoenix Coyotes, the sale of the Montreal Canadiens to an
American, the Philadelphia Flyers' estranged Eric Lindros
holding his breath until his face turns Toronto Maple Leaf
blue--are mere scorekeeping while the hockey world gawks at
From a standing start on Dec. 27, when he came out of a
3 1/2-year retirement with a goal and two assists, Lemieux has
been weaving through the scoring list like a New York City taxi.
With 24 goals and 23 assists after a two-goal, two-assist
performance in a 7-5 win over the New York Rangers last Friday
night, Lemieux had more points than anyone on Minnesota,
Montreal or San Jose and more goals than the leaders of six NHL
teams. Pittsburgh had averaged 1.14 more goals per game since he
put the uniform back on--he'd figured in 41.6% of the Penguins'
scores in that span--but even opponents had benefited from the
return of Mario the Munificent. He'd played in 12 road games,
and not a ticket to those matches had gone unsold, not even to
games played in the usual sea of indifference in New Jersey or
in the NHL's Shawshank, also known as the Nassau Coliseum, home
of the inept New York Islanders. He might as well have parted
the Red Sea.
"This is the best time of my life," Lemieux said recently,
lingering in Pittsburgh's deserted dressing room after practice.
"I had a lot of great moments in the early 1990s, but to be back
and have a chance to play one more time has been great,
especially with me playing well and the team playing well."
When Lemieux returned two months ago, his game was static and
cerebral, a triumph of velvet hands and a Mensa head. He was
playing left wing then, venturing no farther in his end than his
blue line, loitering until a defenseman could find him with a
breakout pass, preparing to saucer the puck to linemate Jaromir
Jagr and maybe work a give-and-go. He was poetry in slow motion,
running the game at his own meter. However, in the last several
weeks Lemieux settled back in at center, and he has begun winning
face-offs (44 of 79 in his last four games through Sunday),
deigning to backcheck, skating more, stretching his game on
occasions to nearly 200 feet.
Lemieux, whose chronic back ailment was a factor in his
retirement, felt his back seize up at practice on Feb. 9,
touching off an understandable panic in Pittsburgh. But while
the coccyx crowed and massage therapist Tommy Plasko worked
overtime, something wonderful was happening elsewhere on
Lemieux's body. His legs, heavy after the All-Star break,
suddenly felt as fresh as they had in almost a decade. He was
struck by an urge to grab the puck and go, to beat defenders
one-on-one, to do substantially more than fill in the blanks.
His legs carried him to that game-turner against Minnesota--"An
old Mario goal, a late '80s-early '90s goal," Penguins
defenseman Marc Bergevin called it--and to a rebound in overtime
against the New Jersey Devils two nights later that forced
goalie Martin Brodeur, who had just foiled Jagr on a breakaway,
to make a second save in a string as spectacular as any in his
Although skating hasn't been a cornerstone of Lemieux's game
("He's never been a skater who will go up and down all the time,"
says Lemaire, who first coached against Lemieux in junior
hockey), his underrated speed can open up more offensive
possibilities than he'd been opening since his return. Lemieux's
success has been almost freakish. The scary part is that until
recently it has unfolded in second gear.
"My goal is to be better than I was in 1997," says Lemieux, who
led the NHL in scoring in '96-97 with 122 points in 76 games. "I
probably won't be as good as I was [in Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup
years of '91 and '92, when he averaged 1.95 points per game], but
I can get pretty close. If my back hangs in and I get my legs to
where I want them, I can get there. I could carry the puck in the
neutral zone against Minnesota, and once I'm able to do that
regularly, my game will go to the next level."
Lemieux, who paraded around the dressing room three weeks ago
with a supportive wrap around his lower back, said he might take
off the second of back-to-back games as a prophylaxis. Indeed, he
sat out Pittsburgh's 4-3 loss to the Washington Capitals last
Saturday, the night after the Ranger game. It was the first time
since he returned that he had missed a match.
"You can see he's getting more comfortable, doing things now he
wasn't a few weeks ago," Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis
says. "He should be in the best shape ever by playoff time. He's
becoming the most dangerous player in the league again, maybe
more than Jagr."
There's a subtext to Lemieux's surreal comeback, one less
flattering to the league. Lemieux, 35, won't rewrite the record
books--he's 13 100-point seasons or so behind Gretzky's
career-points mark--but he might redefine the bloated language of
the sport, in which star is attached to anyone who scores a point
per game. Lemieux is blessed by having Jagr as a linemate, by
working on the league's only power play that regularly uses two
forwards, Alexei Kovalev and Martin Straka, on the points and by
playing for a team that's not averse to taking offensive risks.
However, his 1.68-points-per-game average has forced NHL players
to reconsider how good they really are. Lemieux is like the math
whiz who aces every test and trashes the grading curve. "If I
say, 'Yes, I expected it,' I'd be lying," Dallas Stars right wing
Brett Hull says. "If I say, 'No,' I'd be lying too. Obviously you
know how great he is. On the other hand you say, 'How can he be
doing this? He was gone 3 1/2 years.'"
Lemieux was supposed to have passed the torch, not quietly set
fire to the reputation of an entire generation with it. Remember
the dreamy TV introduction to the 2000 All-Star Game in Toronto,
a filmed segment that showed Lemieux with Gretzky and Gordie Howe
walking toward a frozen pond, symbolically ceding the game to
Jagr, Lindros, Pavel Bure and Paul Kariya? Well, Jagr brooded
until Lemieux returned, Lindros isn't playing, Bure's scoring
hasn't ignited the dreadful Florida Panthers, and through Sunday,
Kariya was scuffling along with 21 goals for the bedraggled
Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
"Mario picked the torch back up," Minnesota general manager Doug
Risebrough says. "What it tells me is that we're in the business
to promote our game, and we've probably promoted some people to
star status who aren't really stars. They're obviously good
players, but they aren't stars in the classic sense. Everybody in
the league is trying to have that star so fans can identify with
him, and then you get a guy like Lemieux back and you see what a
true star is. It might bring a little bit of ammonia to the
nostrils of the league."
Lemieux, though, is so good--he was averaging .28 more points per
game through Sunday than Joe Sakic, the NHL scoring leader--that
using him as the standard for stardom may be unrealistic.
"Lemieux might be the most talented player ever," says Kariya.
Says Lemaire, "He's the only guy who can make the puck disappear
for a second. Here's the puck now--oops, where is it? He still has
it." Compared with Lemieux's ability to make regular-season
apathy vanish, to turn the Penguins into a circus team, to make
every Pittsburgh game Christmas morning, his magic with the puck
is a mere parlor trick.
The one place Lemieux doesn't stand out is in the Penguins'
dressing room, at least no more than he ever did. General manager
Craig Patrick has fixed up the place; he has imported some tough
guys, like forwards Steve McKenna and Krzysztof Oliwa, traded for
Mario allies in Bergevin and the rejuvenated Kevin Stevens, and
made the room as homey as it was when Pittsburgh was winning
Cups. Bergevin threatens to leap into Lemieux's lap twice a month
when paychecks are distributed--"Our Santa," he teases--but Lemieux
says he's now 99% player and 1% owner. He calls the office every
few days but has been in the executive suite only a couple of
times in the past several weeks, once for a morning staff meeting
on Jan. 25, hours after he had gotten a hat trick against the
Canadiens. As he walked into the boardroom, his executive
assistant, Elaine Heufelder, said, "Not too shabby last night,
boss." You think anyone ever said that to Chicago Blackhawks
owner Bill Wirtz?
The playoffs will diffuse hockey's attention--despite having lost
only four of their last 13 games through Sunday, the Penguins
might not be around for long in the postseason if they don't
upgrade their goaltending--but for the next month the Mario cam is
on 24/7. This is his story, his season, one so remarkable it has
ennobled and embarrassed the NHL at the same time. Barring
injury, it should only get better.
Mighty Ducks' Kariya.