Big, lopey, stylish, and wealthy Mario Lemieux, it now is clear, is a genetic anomaly, a specimen, a marvel, a catalog of mongrel neurological capacities passed down through lines of ancestors—one perhaps who had sensitive hands but no use for them, another who was tall but ungraceful, another who had great strength but taught school, another whose vision made him an excellent tracker, another who played shinny with the Indians and was known for his craftiness—all contributing something notable, their bequests collecting and finding expression in a body of sufficient dimensions to allow their possessor to make best and lasting use of them.
Improbably, Lemieux has command of nearly the same skills he had in 1997 when he retired. It may also be that his talents exceed those of any other player by such a margin that even in decline they are supreme. In addition, there is the possibility that when he left the game he knew he had not yet exhausted his abilities. "During those years when he was away," says Steve Latin, the Penguins' equipment manager, "I would look up from the bench at his box, and he was this lone figure up there with the light behind him, and I could see his silhouette—this imposing figure—and I always wondered what he was thinking. He knew in his mind, I think, that he could return and dominate."
Lemieux says that he regrets his inability to take over a game as he used to: Teams seem to him better coached, players more skilled, the strategy even more defensive, the opportunities less prevalent, the game less ripe. He still has his long, rangy stride, still has the hands of a three-card monte dealer, still has the ability to find order in the apparently aimless and chaotic patterns of play, still has the flexibility of mind to sift rapidly through plans of attack and deceit. He covers less ice, perhaps, than he used to, but he was always a player who made no unnecessary gestures and waited for the puck to come to him. Having slowed down slightly, he now has a certain magisterial air—that is, his stately progression through the territory of his opponents conveys a sense that he needs less time, fewer chances than he used to in order to make something noteworthy happen. He is as remorseless a goal-scorer as ever.
What else can Lemieux do? As often as not, make a game unfold as he wants it to. "Hockey is constantly reading," Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch says. "Even though there are set positions, it's always changing. When he plays, though, it's almost as if you have to imagine yourself in a different position. In your head, you're running through a lot of things, trying to keep up with him, the possibilities, and he just slows it down. He's arranging everything. He's bringing you into his game."
Petr Nedved, who played with Lemieux in Pittsburgh for two years and now plays with the Rangers, was recently asked what he would tell a fellow Czech who was preparing for his first NHL game against the Penguins. He thought for a moment, then said, "I would tell him to get off the ice whenever Mario gets on."
In 20/20 hindsight, Lemieux's accomplishments look predictable and assured, but not everyone thought they would be. The youngest of three hockey-playing brothers, Lemieux had dominated Quebec's junior league, but the league was thought to favor big players who couldn't skate and small, shifty players who were fragile. When he was 18, in order to spend one last Christmas at home with his family and also to have a chance at setting the junior record for most consecutive games with a point—he reached 61—Lemieux skipped the World Junior Championships in Sweden, so there was no opportunity to assess his performance among the best junior players. The older of his brothers, Alain, who had been drafted by St. Louis, was skilled too, but had not done especially well in the NHL, mostly, it was thought, because he had not worked hard enough. Lemieux himself was not perceived as diligent, and there was some concern that if he ran into obstacles he might not be willing to do what was required to get past them. Finally, he didn't play well in the Memorial Cup, Canada's junior hockey championship tournament. "There was always the chance," one scout says, "he could turn out to be a big, big dog."
Lemieux was born in October 1965 and raised in the Montreal suburb of Ville Emard. Behind the St. Jean de Matha Church, a few blocks from his parents' house, was a rink where he and his brothers skated for hours at a time, day in and day out. The neighborhood is saturated with Lemieux's relatives; he says there are perhaps 10 families he's connected to living within two blocks of his parents' house. He has offered to buy his mother and father a home in a fancier part of the city, but they refuse to move. Their back door opens onto an alley where Lemieux and his friends used to set up nets. When he was small, his mother would sometimes pack snow on the carpet in the hallway, so that he and his brothers could pretend to skate.
The family was not well off, but Lemieux says he and his brothers had new skates and new clothes every year, while his parents made do with their old wardrobes. Children in Montreal often learn to skate by holding onto the back of a chair and pushing the chair before them on the ice. Lemieux depended on his chair for about 10 minutes. He was 5 when he realized that a grown-up could make a profession of playing hockey, he says, and once he knew of such a possibility, he never aspired to anything else.
Lemieux arrived in Pittsburgh in 1984, having gone only as far as 10th grade in his French-speaking school. He had taken a Berlitz course in English, five hours a day for three weeks, but it was not sufficient to enable him to answer questions comfortably in English. Especially while a camera was filming him. Early in his career he was so anxious about using the wrong words in front of a TV camera that he would begin to sweat when one was trained on him. He had never been an extrovert, but now he appeared inhibited. To absorb the language, he watched soap operas.
When he said last December that he had no interest in returning to the game as anything except its best player, Lemieux displayed the candor that cost him the reverence Canadians felt toward Wayne Gretzky and that Gretzky worked so relentlessly to cultivate. Lemieux has never been widely revered. He is not even widely liked. Players on other teams don't much care for him. When he retired after 12 seasons—with 613 goals and 881 assists for 1,494 points—the NHL did not announce, "No player will ever wear No. 66 again." Officials have never been that fond of him either. Gretzky had a reputation among many linesmen and referees as a whiner, but he complained to them confidentially, with his head down, before putting his stick on the ice for a faceoff, or while skating alongside them during a line change. No one in the stands or watching on TV knew he was displeased. Officials appreciated that in a confrontation with him, Gretzky usually allowed them to preserve their dignity. Lemieux was always a glide-after-them-and-protest guy, a chase-them-up-the-ice guy, a wave-a-hand-from-the-bench guy. More to the point, no one cared to hear from a man who was 6'6" on skates and 230 pounds that he didn't like being roughly handled.
Lemieux's accomplishments are similar to Gretzky's. Gretzky in his best seasons scored more goals per game in the regular season than Lemieux ever did. Lemieux in his best seasons scored more goals per game in the playoffs than Gretzky did. (Gretzky managed a goal a game average in the playoffs only once; Lemieux did it twice.) Lemieux has suffered hardships in his career—cancer, chemotherapy, back surgery—that were far more extravagant than anything Gretzky, who played 19 seasons without serious injury, dealt with. Nevertheless, Lemieux has never been the transcendent figure that Gretzky, who overcame being too small, has long been.
In establishing himself, Lemieux was not merely up against Gretzky's exotic skills, his five-year head start and membership on what might have been the best team ever (Lemieux scored his 199 points, for example, with Rob Brown and Bob Errey on his wings). What mainly has worked against Lemieux are the complicated feelings English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians have toward each other. Penguins broadcaster Paul Steigerwald, who has seen almost all of Lemieux's games, says, "I call him the anti-Gretzky. Look at his number. It's a statement: I'm going to turn your world upside down. Maybe he didn't think of it that way, but it's an interpretation. [No. 99] Gretzky was revered as a national treasure when Mario arrived as this kid who says he's going to pretend to be as good as Wayne is. And you know what, he was better as a natural talent, but you can't convince an English-speaking Canadian of that. Even when he was the best player in the 1987 Canada Cup, people said it was only because Gretzky was there."
Off the ice, Lemieux refused to do anything to convince people of his merit or stature. His manner implied that such conduct was beneath him. Also, he was not obviously driven. "He doesn't display that burning, burning passion for hockey that people in Canada expect," says a longtime general manager. "He will tell people, 'My back hurts, I don't know if I feel like playing,' or, 'I love golf,' and they don't know how to take it. It's completely unlike that Sutter brothers' hockey, hockey, hockey thing."
Lemieux has never been a selfish player or one more interested in his accomplishments than in the well-being of his team. He clearly has a gift for putting people at ease. Although he purchased the Penguins two years ago, his teammates respond to him not as their employer but as a player they admire with devotion. The first time he rode on the plane as a player this season, he took his seat with the other executives, then went back to play cards with the players and never returned.
He doesn't ask for special consideration or behave as if he expects it. "He's an equipment manager's dream," says Latin. "He's not particular about anything. He's wearing the same shin pads he wore in '97. People think he works on his sticks for hours. He just takes them out of the box. I make sure the shafts aren't warped, he tapes them up. He's going to play in the Olympics. They're worried about having him. They're calling me asking what to do to make sure he's happy. I say, 'He walks in, he puts it on, and off he goes. I can't stress enough, he will be the easiest superstar you'll ever work with.' "
A couple of weeks ago, I tried talking to Lemieux in the locker room while he was getting dressed. I asked him if he had ever met someone in another field whose talents reminded him of his own, say a painter or a writer or a musician. He said he didn't know what I meant. I said, "Well, like Paul Simon, for example, someone whose abilities seem of an order more advanced than those the rest of us have."
"Well, if you want to go with Elvis Presley," he said. "He was an amazing singer. I admire him a lot."
I asked if he had any Elvis outfits in his closet, and he said no. Someone walking past handed him a bottle of cheap hair gel. He squeezed a little green pile of it into his palm and applied it.
I asked if any aspect of the game was difficult for him, and he pointed at Marc Bergevin, a defenseman and friend since childhood, who was on his way to the showers, and said, "Just playing with that guy."
I asked what he did in the summer as a boy, and he said he played baseball. He said that from a young age he was always better at hockey than the people he played with. "I had a lot of talent and loved the game," he said, "and I spent a lot of time practicing, probably not knowing it. We grew up playing 10-on-10 or 12-on-12. You had to be a good stickhandler."
He was putting on his coat, and I was aware that he would talk only for a moment longer. I asked why he had retired originally and he said, "It was a combination of the bad back and the cancer." Then, he added, somewhat bashfully, "It's a little difficult to talk about myself." I was struck by his making such a remark in response to a question he must have been asked innumerable times before, and I was reminded of something the general manager had said about him:
"In the end, what you get down to with Mario is that he's undeniably shy."
There is no point talking about how exciting it is to see Lemieux playing hockey so expertly again without also discussing why we didn't see him for 3 1/2 years. Hockey is the only big-time pro sport that considers its less skilled players the equal of its stars. When NHL executives say the game belongs to the fans, they are not being truthful. Clutching and grabbing is not a tactic any knowledgeable fan would endorse. Nor is hooking as a means of impeding another player's progress. Nor is the neutral-zone trap. The NHL endorsed interference, until last season, because it had several new owners who said, in essence, I have just paid many millions for my franchise, I have no superstar, I can't fill my building and pay players' salaries and sell soft drinks and dasher-board advertising and parking and skyboxes with the promise that we're building something here. You have to rig the rules so that my team of minor leaguers and castoffs and draft picks has just as much chance of winning as any other. The result is that Randy McKay becomes the equal of Joe Sakic.
When Nedved was asked why Lemieux retired, he said, "He liked beating guys one-on-one. There was no longer the opportunity. He'd cross the blue line and they'd just throw a rope around him and ride." It is typical of the way Lemieux is regarded that when he criticized the league for allowing such tactics, he was viewed as self-interested.
If Lemieux excels in the playoffs, the Penguins will be difficult to defeat. If he doesn't but Jaromir Jagr does—or Alexei Kovalev or Martin Straka or Robert Lang—they still might prevail. The team doesn't have a formidable defense and it appears still to be auditioning goalies. Playoff hockey is less forgiving, more rigorous, more cautious and more self-conscious than regular hockey, circumstances not necessarily favorable to a team whose principal strength is scoring goals. On the other hand, Lemieux almost always plays big when he needs to.
In addition, there is the peculiar circumstance of his being both the team's owner and its star. (In this year's team picture, Lemieux stood with other Penguins executives, wearing his uniform.) There is no doubt that a part of Lemieux's motivation to return was so that his 4-year-old boy, Austin, could see him play. Clearly, though, he also wanted to protect his investment. Teams make their profits in the playoffs. Lemieux, then, is uniquely under pressures of commerce and pride. One indication of how seriously he takes both responsibilities is that several weeks ago the team announced he would no longer see reporters individually, but would speak to them only as a group after practices and games. The final variable is his health. He suffers periodically from back pains that are nearly chronic. In photographs taken before he retired, he is often wearing loafers and no socks because he couldn't bend over to reach his feet. On occasion, the pain was so severe he needed someone to tie his skates.
Not only does Lemieux not have the inclination to promote himself, he doesn't have the personality for it, either. He's a bit dour. In any room occupied by people he doesn't know, he's looking for the exits. I managed once to provoke from him a response that was not generic. I was standing near him in the locker room while he was dressing after a game against the Islanders in Pittsburgh. A pool of reporters was waiting for him across the room, by a banner that had been draped against the wall as a backdrop. In a few moments he would stand in front of the banner and someone would turn on the lights for the TV cameras and Lemieux's face would turn waxy under the severe illumination and his forehead and blue-gray eyes would appear above the border of the reporters' heads, as if he were peeking over a hedge.
Before that, though, I watched him put on his socks and then bend at the waist like a jack knife to the laces of his shoes.
"Well, at least I got to see you tie your shoes," I said when he was finished. "I hear that doesn't happen very often."
"No," he said, and he smiled. Then he rose to his feet and said, "It's a good day."
This article appears in the April 16, 2001 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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