Sharks looking for a springtime edge in old Claude Lemieux
Claude Lemieux, 43, is closer to his NHL return after signing with AHL Worcester
Worcester says the signing is for their benefit, but it has San Jose in mind
The Sharks hope the old pest can still bring his renowned postseason fire
Even if you're not such a big hockey fan (or even if you are) you've got to be pretty tickled that Claude Lemieux, 64 years old and out of the NHL for 38 seasons is trying this comeback with San Jose.
Okay, he's not that old. He's 43. But has anyone been older and away from the game longer (since 2003) and still made another run at it?
"Well, no, I can't think of anyone," says Wayne Thomas, the general manager of the AHL's Worcester Sharks where Lemieux is now suiting up for an extended minor-league stint. "But Claude's in great shape."
Lemieux is lighter than he was in his playing days (the 6-footer went 215 pounds when he wrapped things up with the Dallas Stars), but Thomas didn't say anything about him being less ornery. Even if you're the kind of hockey fan who's just in it for the moments when life imitates Slap Shot you've got to be pulling for Lemieux.
"He's the fiercest competitor I ever played with," Islanders forward Bill Guerin once said.
In other words, no one's better than Lemieux at poking and prodding and pickling an opponent, no one's better at yapping and needling and irking. He could spear an olive from six feet out. He would trip a crossing guard. He would skate into a rhubarb pie. Everyone calls him the Grate One. "I liked to be involved physically in all aspects of the game," Lemieux sniffed in October.
It was 12 years ago, Game Six of the Western Conference finals, that Lemieux, then with Colorado, went off the rails. A cheap check from behind had the dramatic effect of re-aligning the face of Red Wings forward Kris Draper. Lemieux's blow 'twas not so deep as a well but it served to ratchet up what had been a modest Colorado-Detroit rivalry into Montague-Capulet territory. Fans of fair play have never forgiven him, though Wings-Avs became a must-watch for years.
Lemieux's been rumbling about this comeback for a few months now. He even went all the way to China to get his skates wet for a couple of games. Thomas, who's also the assistant GM in San Jose, maintains that this signing is all about Worcester: "The NHL isn't on our minds right now. Claude's just here to help the [Worcester] team win, help the young players."
Right. And Barack Obama has just been feeling out Hillary Clinton to see if she'd like to help run the White House library.
Even if you're the kind of hockey fan who waits until April to really tune in, you're digging this Lemieux experiment. He's the prince of the playoffs. It was 22 years ago -- seriously this time -- that the rookie Lemieux scored 10 goals in 20 playoff games to help Montreal win the Stanley Cup. He had 18 points in 20 playoff games for New Jersey in 1994; and 13 goals in 20 games for the Devils the next year when he won the Conn Smythe. He's got four Cups in all. Nine times he's taken a team to the Conference finals or beyond. Three times he scored more goals in the postseason than he did in the regular season. Spring fever.
"What's amazing," former Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko once told SI, "is that he really is a little-better skater, a little-better shooter, a little-better stickhandler [in the playoffs] than he is in the regular season."
San Jose started 17-3-1 this season, so it's not like they need a middle-aged Claude to help them ward off the Kings in the Pacific. Wayne Thomas can spin this thing right through the heart of downtown Worcester, Mass., but signing Lemiuex is all about the p-word in San Jose. Year after year, the Sharks keep slipping in the postseason, and in the most egregious way. Lemieux, being older than Gordie Howe, won't be the playoff killer he once was (by the early aughts, he'd already assumed a role-player's life), but maybe he could play 10 minutes a night, be a briar patch on the fourth line, and score the odd goal. In the playoffs, that can be all the difference.
Good luck Claude, you nasty S.O.B. (That's a good thing, kind of.) Give 'em hell in Worcester. We'll see you in San Jose in the spring.