IN THE Jan. 24press conference announcing his retirement, Mario Lemieux, a catch in hisvoice, reminded young NHL players to revel in their careers because everythingpasses, and quickly. The sentiment might have been directed toward his Penguinsprotégé, Sidney Crosby, who was in attendance, but the bittersweet irony isthat Lemieux, 40, didn't always follow his own advice. Until his comeback inDecember 2000, from a retirement 3 1/2 years earlier, he seemed to be workingat rather than playing hockey, shredding defenses and record books almost witha Gallic shrug. There was undeniable grace to his game, just few grace notes orembellishments. Lemieux, of course, returned five years ago as a differentplayer, a center who filtered the action rather than dominated it. But he alsoreturned as a different man. He connected to hockey in a new way, promoting thegame and the NHL, which he once derided as a "garage league." In turn,fans connected to him. Ultimately an irregular heartbeat, which sidelined himin December, forced Lemieux's second retirement. After 690 goals, two StanleyCups and an Olympic gold medal, the man who belatedly uncovered a passion forhockey had to listen to his heart.

PHOTORON SCHWANE/REUTERS (LEMIEUX)MARCH OF THE PENGUIN Lemieux (on SI cover in 1992) said goodbye Pittsburgh on Jan. 25. PHOTOBRUCE BENNETT (SI COVER)[See caption above.]