Sports

STAR OF STARS

Mario Lemieux is so good, he just might save his team and improve the game, too

James Deacon February 19 2001
Sports

STAR OF STARS

Mario Lemieux is so good, he just might save his team and improve the game, too

James Deacon February 19 2001

STAR OF STARS

Sports

Mario Lemieux is so good, he just might save his team and improve the game, too

James Deacon

Mario Lemieux looked completely comfortable up on the dais at the closing news conference at the National Hockey League's All-Star Weekend in Denver. After the last question was answered, he stood there, tall and handsome in a dark, well-tailored suit, his dark hair gleaming wet from his post-game shower, smiling, confident and a little glad it was over. For three days, he had been The Main Attraction for adoring fans, league officials and sponsors. He had been The Story for hundreds of grateful reporters in attendance, for whom all-star contests are so often dull. And he had been The Man for the other 50 or so players who gathered in Denver: with the media spotlight focused on Super Mario, the others had been free to party.

The news conference wasn’t the end of Lemieux’s day, though. When he stepped from the dais to rejoin his family, he was engulfed by gladhanders and autograph hounds. That was too much for his four-year-old son, Austin. It had been a long weekend, the game had been over for an hour and the boy simply wanted his dad back. So when he saw his father disappear into yet another forest of adults, little Austin collapsed on the floor and started to cry, hollering “Dad—dy!” through the tears. Lemieux immediately excused himself, went to console his tired son, and with Austin in his arms, headed straight for the exit. A friend joked that a father’s work is never done. “You’re right,” a relieved Lemieux, 35, said as he passed by. “Never is.”

There were stars galore at the NHLs mid-season extravaganza, but really it was the all-Mario weekend. When Good Morning America called, the only player the TV producers wanted was the Pittsburgh Penguins’ star centre and ownersaviour. Same with ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. People magazine sent a reporter and photographer to Lemieux’s home in the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley, Pa., before he even left for Denver. Everyone wanted a piece of the man who, by returning to the ice with an otherworldly calibre of play, has given back to the NHL the transcendent star power it lost when both he and Wayne Gretzky retired. League governors are ecstatic: every game in which Lemieux has played since first suiting up on Dec. 27 has been sold out, not just in Pittsburgh but on the road as well.

Still, no one is happier to have Lemieux back than his fellow stars. The league’s best players have long complained that the prevailing slash-and-grab defensive style, which can turn a freeflowing sport into gridlock, is boring to fans and dangerous to players. In Lemieux, they see a powerful ally in the batde to open up the sport. “We need to raise these issues,” says Brett Hull, the Dallas Stars winger and loudest critic of today’s game, “or else nothing will ever get done.” Cynics charge that Lemieux’s comeback is all about money—if he hadn’t assembled the current ownership consortium back in 1999 and the team had instead folded, as then appeared inevitable, he stood to lose the more than $30 million (U.S.) he was owed in deferred salary. As well, his decision to lace up the skates came after the Penguins’ only gate attraction, Jaromir Jagr, had fallen into a funk and wanted to be traded. The loss of Jagr would have further devalued Lemieux’s investment.

Still, Lemieux says he has less commercial reasons for playing again. The man whose natural talents rivalled Wayne Gretzky’s missed the camaraderie and s missed playing the game—he reel tired at 31, young by today’s I standards. He no longer suffers § from the chronic back pain that 15 contributed to his decision to retire, and he believes the game is safer due to a crackdown on the vicious slashing that often went unpenalized in the mid1990s. Perhaps most compellingly, he was prodded by Austin, the youngest of his four children, who had never seen him play.

Austin is getting an eyeful. Before suiting up, Lemieux warned it would take him a while to regain playing form, yet the score sheets show he’s been on a tear since Game 1 on Dec. 27. He’s currently beating netminders at a phenomenal goal-a-game pace, and, by last weekend, he had assisted on 17 of his teammates’ goals while inspiring Jagr to regain his own marvellous form. “It doesn’t matter that he isn’t 100 per

cent yet,” says Paul Kariya, the gifted Anaheim Mighty Ducks winger. “He sees the game so well that he always gets himself in the right position.”

The most fascinating aspect of Lemieux’s return, though, is the transformation of his public persona. In his first incarnation, from 1984 to 1997, Lemieux refused reporters access to his private life, and turned down many offers from sponsors wanting to build marketing campaigns around him— the additional celebrity and income weren’t important enough to him to compensate for the loss of time and privacy. But the new Lemieux has stunned longtime hockey reporters in every city where the Pens have played with his willingness to be accommodating. Even his family is more in evidence: in Denver, he was accompanied everywhere by his wife, Nathalie, and by Austin, who joined other players’ sons sitting on the boards like birds on a wire during the Saturdaynight skills contest. Lemieux says ownership has taught him that hockey absolutely needs its best players to promote the game. “I feel more comfortable doing it now,” he says.

“And I understand why we are doing it.”

Although he has softened his criticism of how the game is played, Lemieux says the league can do more to discourage the stickwork, obstruction and interference that slow down the game. NHL officials began this season with just such instructions, but their zeal for calling infractions has waned, and the results are on the scoreboard. There were an average of 5.6 goals scored per game in October, and 5.2 per game in January—a concerning decline for a league trying to promote its offensive stars. “It’s taking a while for the referees to get used to it,” says Kariya. “I’d like to see them go back to the way they were calling things at the beginning of the year.”

Lemieux doesn’t deny that his comeback has protected his investment. Jagr’s enthusiasm is restored, ticket revenues are soaring and the Penguins appear certain to make the playoffs, thus ensuring a post-season box-office windfall. As well,

Lemieux announced in Denver that he plans to stay in the game at least for a couple more years—enough time, perhaps, to convince Pittsburgh officials to help the Penguins build a new arena to replace the revenue-challenged Mellon Arena.

But Lemieux makes it clear he would not have come back, nor committed to playing next season, if he were not capable of playing at a level that satisfied him. Not that he had any doubts: when a reporter asked Lemieux if he worried he would not be able to be the best player in the world again,

The Man just smiled. Like that would ever happen.