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Second act closes

Mario the player eventually became Mario the human

Posted: Tuesday January 24, 2006 2:06PM; Updated: Tuesday January 24, 2006 8:12PM
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More health problems finally forced Mario to call it quits again.
More health problems finally forced Mario to call it quits again.
Where would you rank Mario Lemieux among the all-time NHL greats?
He's right there with Gretzky
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To hell with F. Scott Fitzgerald. There are second acts in America (and Canada), acts even better than the first one, as in the case of Mario Lemieux.

There also are, sadly, second retirements.

On Tuesday, Lemieux said goodbye to hockey a second time, this time more of a proper farewell than he afforded the game -- or the game afforded him -- the first time. The Pittsburgh Penguins center orginally left after a 1997 playoff loss in Philadelphia, escaping faster than the Barrow Gang after a bank heist. He didn't walk away from the NHL, he sprinted.

After battling Hodgkin's Disease and chronic back problems, his hockey immune system rejected the "garage league" he thought he was leaving behind forever, the on-ice rodeo in which players with his glorious skill were not allowed to exhibit it. Almost since the day he entered the league as a pimply 18-year old, there were damning whispers Lemieux didn't have much passion for the game. What originated as a smear, based largely on his languid style on the ice and his diffidence off it, ultimately became an apt description.

If Lemieux didn't love the game by that point, it shouldn't have been startling that the game really didn't love him back. Outside of Pittsburgh, no one seemed to notice, or care, that he had retired. This was not a long goodbye, but a quick good riddance to a player who inarguably was among the 10 best in history. Gone in 60 seconds, forgotten in 60 minutes.

Maybe the gaps in his résumé, a product of his injury and illness, had given the hockey world enough of a glimpse of life post-Mario that when he did bolt almost nine years ago, it did not seem to be the major loss his retirement seems now.

The reason: In his way, Mario II was more impressive than Mario I.

This notion seems so counter-intuitive. Mario II was never a sure bet to be in the lineup, let alone on the scoresheet. Mario I was flat phenomenal. He had only one peer, Wayne Gretzky, during much of his first act, and you could have a splendid barstool argument over which was better in his prime.

Like Gretzky, Lemieux recorded Nintendo numbers. Like Gretzky, he became the foundation of a Stanley Cup-winning franchise, although it took him seven years to win his first Cup; Gretzky needed five. Lemieux once scored five goals in a game five different ways: even-strength, power play, short-handed, penalty shot and empty net, proof that the man who scored on his first shot on his first NHL shift really could do it all. With his reach and vision and underrated hockey IQ, he turned plumbers into 40-goal scorers (Warren Young) and made good Penguins teams into champions.

Of course the Lemieux who returned after a 3½-year hiatus was not the same player. More important, he was not the same person. His first game back, in late December 2000, at Mellon Arena, was an emotionally dappled triumph as his retired No. 66 came down from the rafters. But the spotlights that night felt more like soft backlights that cast a flattering glow on Lemieux, something that had escaped him even during his 199-point season of 1988-89 or the pair of Cup runs in 1991 and 1992.

He had shrunk some as a player, grown mightily as a man. He seemed more human somehow, at peace with his changing skills and himself.

There was an economic imperative for his returning to the ice -- the bankrupt franchise owed him millions and the Penguins were worth more with him as a leader than a creditor -- but his desire to impress his young son, Austin, who had no recollection of his father as a player, seemed as genuine as it was charming. Lemieux had more time now, time for the game he had missed and time for the people around it. He viscerally enjoyed hockey now, and fans began to enjoy him more than they did a decade earlier.