SPORTS

Mario’s misfortunes

Cancer sidelines hockey’s biggest star

D'ARCY JENISH January 25 1993
SPORTS

Mario’s misfortunes

Cancer sidelines hockey’s biggest star

D'ARCY JENISH January 25 1993

Mario’s misfortunes

SPORTS

Cancer sidelines hockey’s biggest star

D'ARCY JENISH

NANCY WOOD

Outside the Gadbois Sports Centre, a hockey arena in the working-class Montreal neighbourhood of St-Henri, a fierce wind whipped fresh fallen snow around the parking lot one night last week. Inside the arena, the dressing rooms were full of warmth and chatter as the 13and 14-year-old members of the Sharks and the Stars, two local bantam hockey teams, dressed for a tournament game. But their boyish bravado evaporated at the mention of Pittsburgh Penguins centre Mario Lemieux, professional hockey’s reigning but ailing superstar. The previous evening, the Penguins had disclosed that Lemieux, 27, had developed a type of cancer known as Hodgkin’s disease. For many Montreal teenagers, Lemieux is a home-town hero and an inspiration: he grew up in nearby Ville Emard and honed his hockey skills at the Gadbois arena.

“I’d love to be like him,” said Shark forward Frederic Boudrias. “When I heard he was sick, I was so upset.”

In a Jan. 15 news conference at a Pittsburgh hotel, Lemieux tried to ease the fears of local and Canadian fans. Flanked by team president Howard Baldwin and two doctors, the'softspoken star said that he has already undergone surgery to remove a small cancerous lymph node in his neck.

Around the end of January, he will begin four weeks of radiation treatment to help ensure that the disease is eliminated. He vowed to beat cancer, but avoided any predictions that he

would be back for the National Hockey -

League (NHL) playoffs, which begin in April, and the Penguins’ campaign for a third straight Stanley Cup. “My health,” he said, “is certainly more important than playing hockey.”

It was about a year ago, Lemieux added, that he first detected a small bump on his neck. However, he did not bring the problem to the attention of Penguin team doctors until about two weeks ago when another problem, recurring back pain, forced him to leave a game. On Jan. 8, a surgeon removed a peanut-sized lump measuring about one-by-two cm from Lemieux’s neck. Three days later, doctors told him that he has Hodgkin’s disease, a type of cancer that attacks the lymph nodes, which help the body fight disease. He has also developed a respiratory infection, which will delay

the start of his radiation treatment until the end of the month. Still, the two doctors at the news conference, team physician Charles Burke and cancer specialist Theodore Crandall, said that Lemieux’s disease had been diagnosed in its early stages and before it could

spread to other organs—leaving him with a 95per-cent chance of a cure.

In Pittsburgh, where Lemieux has led the Penguins to unprecedented popularity, fans greeted the optimistic medical assessments with a deep sense of relief. According to sportswriters and others familiar with the city’s sports scene, Lemieux is revered in Pittsburgh because of his on-ice accomplishments, his quiet manner and his loyalty to teammates. “People in Pittsburgh just love this guy,” said Richard Restelli, who owns three sporting goods stores in the Pittsburgh area. “This is a blue-collar city and he blends in well. One thing that upsets Pittsburgh people is when somebody like former Pirate Barry Bonds says, ‘I’m going to be the highest-paid

player in baseball.’ The fans just said, ‘Adios.’ ” Lemieux has demonstrated his commitment to the community by living year-round in Pittsburgh, where he has played since jumping from junior hockey to the NHL in October, 1984. He and his fiancé, Nathalie Asselin, who he has known since he was 17, moved last fall from the Pittsburgh suburb of Mount Lebanon to a new home in the more exclusive suburban community of Sewickley. They also have a farm in Washington County, south of the city, where they keep horses. The hockey star also has heightened his profile through charitable work. He has served—paradoxically, it seems now— as honorary chairman of the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, a research and treatment organization, for the past five years, and he has participated in charity golf tournaments. “He has charisma,” said Wanda Wohlfarth, co-ordinator of one of those tournaments. “You wouldn’t believe the women who follow him around at our tournament.”

While Lemieux has emerged from the shadow of Wayne Gretzky over the past couple of seasons to become hockey’s dominant player, he has also experienced considerable adversity. He missed 21 games near the end of the 1989-1990 season because of back problems, then had surgery to relieve a herniated disc during the off-season. He missed the first 50 games of the 1990-1991 campaign while recuperating, but returned to lead the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup. At the start of the current season, the Penguins signed Lemieux to a seven-year contract worth an estimated $42 million, making him the highest paid player in the sport. When injury and illness sidelined him after 40 games, he led the NHL scoring race with 104 points—and was on course to break Gretzky’s single season record of 215 points, set in 1985-1986 when the Great One played for Edmonton.

But last week, scoring records suddenly seemed insignificant to players and fans alike. “Sometimes we think we are physically invincible,” said Gilbert Dionne, a 22-year-old winger for the Montreal Canadiens, standing in the Forum dressing room after a game last week. “Sure, we get injured. But we psych ourselves up—an injury is not serious, we’ll be back in the game. But an illness like this you cannot prevent.” In St-Henri and Ville Emard, many longtime residents watched Lemieux develop his prodigious hockey skills as a youth. “That kid had hockey in his blood from the time he was tiny,” recalled Guy Bouliane, 60, who was watching minor hockey at the Gadbois Sports Centre one night last week. Fellow spectator Réal Lemay added: “If he were finished, it would be a huge loss. He is the biggest attraction in the National Hockey League.” But for now, Lemieux is simply a vulnerable young man.

D’ARCY JENISH with NANCY WOOD in Montreal