Besides kickstarting his team, Mario Lemieux has boosted network ratings and attendance.Doug Pensinger/Allsport.
No one is more deserving
By David Vecsey, CNNSI.com
Oh, you could have an NHL All-Star Game without Mario Lemieux. Why not? We've already seen a blatantly illegal goal decide the Stanley Cup; Wayne Gretzky bypassed in a crucial Olympic shootout; and Roger Neilson lose his job while battling cancer (and subsequently get ripped in the press by his former GM Bobby Clarke).
Yeah, hockey knows how to blow it, alright. But not even the NHL can blow this one.
If some young stud scored 16 points in his first six games, you might reserve judgement until the end of the season. But Lemieux is only the game's all-time points-per-game leader, the only one to average more than two per. Some people worried he would irrevocably dip below that mark in this comeback, but instead he increased that average from 2.005369 to 2.010652 after six games.
Mark Messier was getting commissioner picks when he could barely keep up with Adrian Aucoin in Vancouver ... Gimpy Dominik Hasek was voted in last year despite a 1-4-2 record ... and Teemu Selanne will make the World team this year despite being seriously sub-par.
In other words, there will be bigger travesties in the All-Star rosters. All Lemieux has done is revitalize his (literally, his) team, invigorate network ratings and attendance, and, not to mention, embarrass every skill player who has complained that present-day conditions are limiting their offensive output.
Let's not forget that Lemieux isn't just coming back from a whimsical "retirement" like some superstars, his hiatus was brought on by a combination of Hodgkin's Disease and serious back ailments. And while he was gone, he not only stayed involved with the game, but saved the Pittsburgh franchise for the second time by putting together an 11th-hour ownership group. MJ bought into the Washington Wizards out of convenience, remember.
So while there will certainly be the usual debates over All-Star snubs, let's not drag Mario Lemieux into them. There isn't a more deserving All-Star.
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The NHL already has deemed Mario Lemieux an All-Star despite playing in only a handful of games.Craig Jones/Allsport.
Overplaying the hype
By Jamie MacDonald, CNNSI.com
Over there, in the other column, you'll read the easy, feel-good angle: The more Mario, the better. He is magical. He's Super Mario, for crying out loud. (In this corner, you may think, is a guy who daydreams of puppies stuck in bear traps.)
No doubt, Mario Lemieux's ease of (re)entry into his sport is the very best kind of news in hockey these days. He is magical. He embodies a masterful confluence of grace and force, of skill and execution.
That he's willing to wear a mike and score two-plus points per outing (to say nothing of the aplomb with which he answers questions ranging from Hodgkin's to greed to his son) all in
the name of what's good for the NHL should further warm the hearts of hockey fans around the world.
But let's think about this for a second. Is it necessary that he play in the 2001 All-Star Game? What has he played, 20 games? Not even?
See, the league is both buying and selling Super Mario hype. Breaking out the bunting and the red carpet to overexpose Lemieux is an understandable temptation, but the league shouldn't go this overboard this soon. Leave it to the fans to fawn, to be awed and to believe that hype. Unfortunately, announcers have been given to the same obsequious observation, but the league should show the restraint to stop short of bowing to Lemieux after a handful of games.
Lemieux should be in Denver on Feb. 4, 2001 ... as an owner and the hands-down warm-and-fuzzy tale of the century. But he should leave his skates, new swoosh pants and helmet in Pittsburgh.
Even if it is just a matter of Gary Bettman's invitation, Lemieux could send a stronger message for the good of the game by reminding anyone who tunes in that no player is bigger than the sport itself.
With Lemieux on the ice, the 2001 All-Star Game, pond-hockey though it may be, will become an afterthought. If Lemieux is serious about his comeback, he'll see another two or three All-Star Games. It's not yet time to turn the NHL into the MHL. Lemieux is capable of doing it all by himself.
By this time next year, to be sure, he will have earned All-Star status.