Posted: Tuesday January 24, 2006 2:06PM; Updated: Tuesday January 24, 2006 8:12PM
Lemieux had 35 goals and 76 points in 43 games during that wondrous half season, a 1.77 points-per-game average that exceeded scoring leader and teammate Jaromir Jagr by more than a quarter of a point. The question: Was Mario that good or was the rest of the league that ordinary?
In 2000-01, Lemieux had not returned for a victory lap. He had returned for some victories.
No longer the dazzling scorer who terrorized goalies, he was more of a conduit. Lemieux did not control the play, but it almost always came through him. Literally. In Salt Lake City, he opened his legs, like making a dummy in soccer, and let a puck slide through to a teammate in the offensive zone for an easy goal.
Lemieux would be captain of the first Canadian team in 50 years to win Olympic gold, even though he would play in just 24 games that season because of a hip injury sustained in early October. If Pittsburgh resented his scratching an Olympic jones at the expense of the Penguins, he has long since been forgiven.
With Lemieux, there was always something. Cancer. Back. Hip. Now heart. The atrial fibrillation flared during the summer, but his appetite for the game wouldn't allow him to shut it down until Dec. 16, when his condition deteriorated and he had no choice. The Penguins had won the lottery -- the rights to Sidney Crosby -- and he was not about to disappear again without at least trying out some of the winnings.
Other than perhaps Rocket Richard and Montreal, no player in hockey history is so intimately linked with one city, one franchise. Lemieux saved the Penguins in 1984 as a rookie, won them championships as a veteran, and saved them again as an owner. He has put them up for sale as the eternal new arena-watch continues, intent on selling to someone who plans to keep the team in Pittsburgh.
Of course, there are no guarantees. As Lemieux knows better than anyone, sometimes life gets in the way. Those slam-dunk free agents of the summer -- Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, Jocelyn Thibault -- haven't worked out. New coach Michel Therien has savaged his players, and the Penguins have devolved into a dysfunctional mess.
Maybe Mario III can figure it out before the team implodes or moves, but he will have a tough act, Mario II, to follow.