Unhappy Ending His financially strapped Penguins can't compete and his back hurts like hell. Is this any way for the great Mario Lemieux to finish his career?

April 06, 2003

Mario lemieux at 37 is the sort of tall, handsome, polished and
worldly figure one sees at Caribbean resorts, where an oil guy
from Texas might ask him, "So what business you in, Mario?" He
could live in Manhattan, he could live in Paris or Montreal or
Los Angeles, but he has settled with his wife, Nathalie, and
their four children in Pittsburgh. He keeps fancy wine from
Bordeaux in a locker by the door of a steak house a few blocks
from Mellon Arena, and he goes there often enough, he says, that
he doesn't mind that the wine isn't being kept cool in his
cellar. Except in Pittsburgh, where he is justifiably revered for
his accomplishments and the loyalty he has shown to the city, he
has never been a particularly sympathetic figure.

Lemieux is one of those rare people who has always been the
center of attention though he never set out to be, so he never
cultivated the tools he needed to make a favorable impression.
Some people say that he was so coddled when he arrived in
Pittsburgh in 1984--If you don't want to do it, Mario, you don't
have to--that he never learned how to occupy the role of athletic
superstar, even one in a peripheral sport. But he is charming in
private, even gracious, and people who know him take pleasure in
his company. "I was impressed with him at the Olympics," says
Detroit Red Wings star forward Brendan Shanahan. "You always
watch the superstars to see how they behave, and he impressed me
the most. He didn't try to distance himself, didn't miss a team
meeting or a meal, he listened to what everyone had to say. He
didn't want the team to be about him, the way some superstars do.
He seemed really to enjoy it."

In the eyes of the young French Canadian players at Pittsburgh's
training camp, who lace their skates while looking sideways at
him, he sees the adulation for him that he knows exists in
Canada, and he bears it gracefully. He isn't one of those stars
who has one persona for the public and another for his private
life. "He's such a consummate leader," says Penguins wing Steve
McKenna, "that no matter who's involved, he treats everyone the
same. He treats everyone as if they were Mario Lemieux."

In the career of an athlete who has endured back surgeries so
serious that they will impair his movement for the rest of his
life, and a confrontation with his own mortality in the form of
cancer (Hodgkin's disease), it is difficult to identify the most
vexing season, but surely among those in which Lemieux has been
reasonably healthy, this season must be one of them. The Penguins
were a luckless franchise when he joined them, and they appear to
be nearly luckless now. Whether Lemieux retires this summer or
next, the Penguins will not soon be anything like the powerhouse
teams he led to Stanley Cups in 1991 and '92. Last week they
defeated the New York Rangers 3-1 at Madison Square Garden, but
they hadn't won any of their 16 games before that and through
Sunday they were 26-42-6-5, the second-worst record in the
league. Lemieux, who has averaged more goals per game (.78) than
any other player in NHL history, hadn't scored in seven matches,
and for the season he was an inglorious -24. He had led the
league in scoring for much of this season only to fall behind in
the last few weeks, partly from injury and partly from losing
star wing Alex Kovalev in a February trade to the Rangers.

He and Kovalev had played well together--two heady and elegant
skaters accustomed to finding open ice and each other. In
addition, the team, of which Lemieux is the principal owner, is
expected to lose at least $2 million this season and is close
enough to insolvency that having shed several players with big
contracts at the trade deadline last month, general manager Craig
Patrick announced that the franchise could no longer compete.

The Vancouver Canucks' Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund, the
Colorado Avalanche's Peter Forsberg, and the Boston Bruins' Joe
Thornton are often regarded as the best forwards in hockey, but
Lemieux, when he's healthy, probably is. After 12 games this
season Lemieux had 29 points. In any stretch of 12 games
throughout 2002-03, none of those others approached his
production, and they play for teams of much greater parts. In
Pittsburgh, Lemieux operates without much help. "He hasn't lost
any skill," says Shanahan. "It's just easier to key on him now."
Kovalev says, "Mario can still control a game, but no matter how
good you are, you need one or two other guys who can draw
attention."

Last week in Pittsburgh, at the team's practice rink, Lemieux
described himself as "more of a one-on-one player" early in his
career. "I would challenge the defensemen," he said, "but it
seems like I'm not able to do that as much now. It's a little bit
being older, but also the game is different. Athletes are better.
Back then there were maybe two defensemen per team that you could
go one-on-one with and beat every time. Now the skating's better.
I have to rely on my teammates, my wingers." The wings in
Pittsburgh, not long ago occupied by stars such as Kovalev and
Jaromir Jagr, are impoverished. "It's got to be frustrating for
Mario," says McKenna, who in 321 NHL games through Sunday had
scored 17 goals. "It's tough to look over on your wing and see
me, when you're used to seeing Kovalev."

Lemieux has always been a player of towering abilities, a
one-off. He was never embraced the way Wayne Gretzky was.
Lemieux's bearing is too formal. When he first retired, after the
1996-97 season, the league did not issue a press release saying,
"No one will ever wear number 66 again," as it would with
Gretzky's 99. Perhaps the reason is that Lemieux is so absurdly
gifted--to begin with, he's 6'4" and 230 pounds--and everything he
does seems so effortless that to root for him goes against
several fundamental and nearly archetypal forms, such as the
appeal of the underdog and the promised reward for discipline and
hard work.

Lemieux was also always a little mouthy. He won the scoring title
in 1989. When the MVP award went to Gretzky, Lemieux pointed out
that traditionally it was given to the league's scoring leader.
He called the NHL a garage league in '92 for routinely allowing
lesser players to impede better ones. Even so, in facing his
illness and his injuries, which caused him to retire at 31 (he
made his comeback in 2000-01), he has displayed considerable
dignity. For years he has played in pain. He often used to appear
in photographs wearing loafers and no socks, and the reason was
that he couldn't bend over to put on socks or tie his shoes.

A man who is capable of such forbearance is not likely to abandon
it in public or in response to questions from a writer. Lemieux
doesn't exactly speak in truisms, but he's guarded. He's polite.
He's cordial. He has a natural charisma. But even when he agrees
to talk, it's clear that he has no intention of revealing
anything. In Pittsburgh, Lemieux talked while the team practiced.
He sat down carefully, wincing, on a leather couch in the locker
room. "I got a sore back today," he said. He was wearing black
shorts, an orange fleece top and a pair of those open-back
sandals that old men used to wear to shuffle from the steam room
to the massage table but now have become fashionable. He felt
better earlier in the season, when he was playing about 24
minutes a game, but "it's tough at 37 to play that much," he
said. "It's tough getting up in the morning. It's different from
when I was 22 or 23 and could play three games in four nights."
Then he dismissed the difficulty by saying, "Every athlete has to
go through it."

The explanation for his terrific start this season, Lemieux said,
was partly that he had trained assiduously and partly the team's
remorseless power play. "I felt strong early," he said. "I skated
better. Over the summer I had trained hard, doing the treadmill
and running up hills. My back was sore at the beginning, but
those point totals were a by-product of our power play being on
fire. If you work on it early in the season, that can happen.
Before other teams have a chance to adjust, you can get a lot of
points."

When he was asked whether an injury is what had caused his
production to slide (in the season's first 35 games he scored 63
points; in the last 44 matches he had 26), he shrugged and said,
"I had Kovy [Kovalev] for a lot of the year, another guy who
could carry the puck." Then, "The team's different now. We had to
trade some guys we couldn't afford." The tone of his voice was
resigned. "We got younger," he went on. "You do the best you
can."

Recently a New York City newspaper suggested that Lemieux was
going to sell the Penguins over the summer then sign somewhere
else as a free agent--an option he declined several years ago out
of loyalty to Pittsburgh and its fans. He returned to the game in
December 2000 for several reasons--so that his then four-year-old
son, Austin, could see him play, because he loved hockey and
missed it, and perhaps also to protect his investment. (He bought
the team in 1999, a year after the club declared bankruptcy; at
that point the Penguins owed him $32.5 million in deferred
salary.) A Pittsburgh newspaper said that Lemieux could have
gotten most of the money he was owed from a new owner, who would
have moved the team to a new city, and then come out of
retirement in New York or Montreal and made $20 million a year.
When asked about these reports, Lemieux said, "When I left, my
back was in bad shape. I was really tired from the radiation, and
I couldn't recover as fast as I wanted to, and I also wanted to
enjoy my life and my family. When I came back, it helped sell
tickets, but we had a great team, with Jagr and [Martin] Straka
and [Robert] Lang and Kovalev, and I thought we could go all the
way. I thought if I came back we could do it."

The biggest question concerning Lemieux is whether he will return
to play next season. Kovalev thinks he will. "He'd love to play
next year," he says. "It depends on his health." Lemieux has
fielded the question often enough that he said, without
reflection, "I'm going to sit down over the summer with my family
and friends and evaluate myself hard and how I'm playing and
where the franchise is going."

The next day in New York City, while his teammates ran through
drills during the morning skate at Madison Square Garden, Lemieux
had back spasms and so he lay on the trainer's table in the
visitors' locker room. After practice, on his way to the bus, he
walked delicately, like a man being careful not to press his
heels too heavily against the pavement. The pain in his back, he
said, is the result of the two surgeries, which left a crack in a
vertebrae that never healed completely and irritates the nerves.
Asked again about his retirement plans, he said, "You still going
there, huh?" Then he said, "I'm not going to play until I'm 45 or
50. One day I'll have to move on." The day before he made one
notable divergence from this position. When he was asked if he
had already made up his mind but simply wasn't saying, he smiled,
and said, "Yeah."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGES COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGES FREE FALL Since he was forced to trade linemate Kovalev because of finances, Lemieux's production has dropped dramatically. COLOR PHOTO: JASON COHN/ICON SMI DOWN TIME Because of the rough going he's encountered this year, Lemieux is noncommittal about returning in 2003-04.

"Mario can still control a game," says Kovalev, "but no
matter how good you are, YOU NEED OTHER GUYS TO DRAW ATTENTION."

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)