PITTSBURGH (AP) --Unlike many aging superstars, Mario Lemieux's problem wasn't that his heart was no longer in the game. Rather, his heart no longer allowed him play the game the way he had always played it.
The Lemieux way -- with greatness and grace, with dominating skills but also with a quiet dignity -- may prove very difficult for future generations of hockey players to rival.
Lemieux, his Hall of Fame talent eroded by an ongoing heart problem, retired from the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second time Tuesday in a long, productive yet star-crossed career, but this time was different.
This was the last retirement, and the tears in his eyes and the quiver in his voice said so. So did the proud but sad looks on the faces of wife Nathalie, their four children and the Penguins players who gathered to say goodbye, even though it visibly pained all to do so.
"This is it," Lemieux said, "and it hurts."
The 40-year-old Penguins owner-player learned in early December he has atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can cause his pulse to flutter wildly and must be controlled by medication. He returned Dec. 16 against Buffalo, but the problem flared up again in the third period and he has not played since.
Lemieux, the NHL's seventh-leading career scorer with 1,723 points, practiced the last several weeks with the intent of playing again. But after several repeat episodes of an irregular pulse, he decided his health should be his primary consideration, especially with a raft of new stars turning the NHL into a faster, younger man's game.
"If I could play this game at a decent level, I'd come back and play," Lemieux said. "This is really a new NHL and it's built on speed and young guys."
Lemieux is also experiencing side effects with his medication, and he may undergo surgery to correct the problem. He spoke Tuesday to Toronto coach Pat Quinn, who told Lemieux he had the same operation and has felt much better since he did.
"I don't want to take pills the rest of my life," Lemieux said. "It's not something I want to go through."
Lemieux also was the first major pro sports star to buy the team for which he played, assembling a group that bought the team in federal bankruptcy court in 1999. He insisted the stress he is under as an owner -- the franchise is for sale, and may relocate without a new arena -- did not affect the decision to retire as a player.
"I don't feel great when I wake up. Even to this day I am not feeling 100 percent, and it's frustrating to me," he said.
Still, the 13-time All-Star returned so many times from injuries and operations, setbacks and layoffs, personal crises and even cancer, this decision came as a surprise. After all, this was a man who missed a month of the 1992-93 season with Hodgkin's disease, or cancer of the lymph nodes, yet easily won the scoring title.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Lemieux had seven goals and 15 assists in 26 games this season, averaging more than a point a game until the heart problem worsened a few weeks into the season.
At least No. 66 has someone to pass the mantle to -- 18-year-old Sidney Crosby, the Penguins' rookie superstar in waiting who was briefly Lemieux's linemate and remains his housemate. The two were on the same line when Lemieux had three assists Nov. 3 against the Islanders, one of Lemieux's six multipoint games this season.
Crosby didn't know until breakfast Tuesday morning that Lemieux was quitting, though he guessed it might happen soon.
"It's just tough to see him leave," Crosby said of the man who turned comebacks into an art form. "He's had such an impact on the game. He's really got a passion for the game. I don't think anyone ever should have to deal with so much."
What's remarkable to Crosby is how much Lemieux accomplished in an oft-interrupted 17-season career that was nearly halved by medical misfortune -- two Stanley Cup championships, six scoring titles, three MVP awards, two playoff MVP awards, an Olympic gold medal, a Canada Cup title against the Soviet Union in 1987.
Lemieux was such a talent, he scored a goal on the first shift of his first game as a rookie in 1984. Then, 16 years later in December 2000, he needed only a half-minute on the ice to set up a goal in his first game following a 44-month retirement. He had two assists and a goal that night, and likely would have won another scoring title had he played the full season.
"It was a great challenge playing against him," New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur said. "I really looked forward to facing him and was fortunate to be able to play with him internationally. He took care of business on and off the ice and certainly will be missed."
Lemieux, a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee in 1997, also missed considerable time with hip injuries during the 2001-02 and 2003-04 seasons, a rare bone infection that followed a 1991 back operation and countless back problems. Since 1996-97, he played more than 43 games in a season only once.
"How many more points would he have had if he stayed reasonably healthy?" Hall of Fame forward Bryan Trottier said. "Four hundred? Five hundred? Six hundred? We'll never know. No disrespect to Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Mark Messier, Bobby Orr, Gilbert Perreault ... but Mario did things nobody else could ever do."
Lemieux had fewer goals than Gretzky (690 to 894) and fewer assists (1,033 to 1,963) but played nearly 600 fewer games than The Great One, many of them surrounded by far less talent than Gretzky played with most of his career in Edmonton. The current Penguins are on a 10-game losing streak after being projected as a playoff contender.
"For him to go through all he's gone through, yet do everything he's done on the ice is unbelievable," Crosby said. "It's all weighed on him. It hasn't been easy -- the team's losing and he's trying to keep the team in Pittsburgh. It's got to wear on you."
Once the Penguins are sold, and there is no timetable for doing so, Lemieux plans to explore his options in hockey. He stepped down last week as the Penguins' chief executive officer but will remain as chairman of the board.
One reason he is selling is because he won't take any role in relocating the team from Pittsburgh should it be forced to move.
"We should all feel fortunate," teammate and friend Mark Recchi said of Lemieux, "that we had the opportunity just to be around him."
(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)