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Not taking it lightly

Lemieux wants to become dominant player again

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Posted: Monday December 11, 2000 6:49 PM
Updated: Tuesday December 12, 2000 8:11 AM

  Mario Lemieux Mario Lemieux smiles as he answers questions during Monday's news conference in Pittsburgh. AP

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Mario Lemieux, whose comeback has excited his sport as much as Michael Jordan's did for basketball, wants to be hockey's dominant player again.

"I'm not coming back to embarrass myself," Lemieux said at a news conference Monday. "That's the last thing I would do. I wouldn't come back unless I thought I could play at a high level ... to try to regain the title of the best player in the world. It's something I have the desire and passion to do."

Lemieux said his unexpected comeback after a 3 1/2-year layoff has nothing to do with enhancing the finances of the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise he now owns.

"The most important thing is I miss the game tremendously," he said.

He also predicted this comeback will go more smoothly than those he made in 1991 from back surgery, in 1993 from Hodgkin's disease and in 1995 from a year's layoff for health reasons.

"I feel that being 35 isn't too late and I have a lot of great hockey left in me," Lemieux said. "This comeback, I feel, will be the easiest because I've been resting and I'm healthy and I have a fresh start mentally and physically."

Lemieux also said Penguins lack only an experienced leader to challenge for the Stanley Cup, and his return can help four-time scoring champion Jaromir Jagr break out of a long scoring slump.

"I play this game to win championships, and I feel this team is very, very close to competing for a Stanley Cup. I do believe we need some experience down the stretch, especially in the playoffs," he said.

Lemieux, a six-time NHL scoring champion, first began thinking of playing again early this fall. He started working out on his own Nov. 1, borrowing an exercise bike from the Penguins" practice rink, and began skating Nov. 28 with the help of former Penguins defenseman Jay Caufield.

Penguins employees didn't become suspicious until he stopped keeping regular morning office hours.

"I've made a lot of progress in 2 1/2 weeks," he said. "I feel very good about my chances. The first week was discouraging. I couldn't skate the way I used to, but I've showed a lot of progress in the past week or 10 days."

Lemieux plans to start practicing with the Penguins early next week and could play again in late December, though he said he could be early January.

"I'll come back when I'm ready to play at a high level," he said. "I do intend to come back ready to go."

Lemieux's remarkable and unparalleled progression from hockey's most dominating player to team owner and back to player has created never-envisioned problems with the NHL Players Association. But he said none are serious enough to derail his comeback.

"I'm going to pay my union dues," he said.

It was agreed in negotiations with the players association that he will be paid $1.41 million -- the league's average salary -- even though he will essentially be paying himself. If he had paid himself minimum wage, it would have dragged down the average salary, a figure used in contract negotiations.

Lemieux must remain on the NHL's Board of Governors because it was a legal requirement of his ownership group's takeover of the Penguins in federal bankruptcy court. But he will not take part in any sensitive issues relating to owners-players relations, and he will divorce himself from much of the team's day-to-day business decisions.

He expects no trouble in the locker room because of his unique role as owner-player.

"I'm going to be a player, just like all of them are," Lemieux said. "I'm going to tell them I'm coming back to be a player. I'm going to be their teammate. ... Being a player will take up 99 percent of my time."

Lemieux will play at least the rest of this season before assessing how successful his comeback was, but he currently plans to play for at least several more years.

"I see guys playing this game at 40, and playing very well," he said.

He became teary-eyed when he said he also wants to play again so his four children, especially 4-year-old son Austin, can see him play for the first time.

"He's a young kid who gets up early in the morning with a hockey stick in his hands and he loves the game of hockey, and he'll get to see Daddy play before it's too late," Lemieux said.

Lemieux was so secretive about his comeback, he didn't even tell his children until the news broke Thursday.

"We told them, 'Daddy's coming back to play with Jagr,'" Lemieux said, drawing loud laughter.

Related information
Kostya Kennedy's NHL Power Rankings
SI's Michael Farber: Time to rethink Sakic's image
NHL Week at a Glance: Coffee drying up
From the page of Sports Illustrated: Mario Lemieux scrapbook
Mario Lemieux Career Chronology
Mario Lemieux Comeback Archive Stories's Darren Eliot: Year of the veteran comebacks
Wayne Gretzky believes hockey will benefit greatly from Lemieux's comeback. (115 K)
Gretzky predicts Lemieux will contribute to the Pens' success. (184 K)
Mario Lemieux hopes to give the Penguins the boost they need. (320 K)
Lemieux doesn't intend to steal Jagr's captaincy. (168 K)
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