There have been many happy returns in 1995, The Year of the Comeback. One by one they have solved their physical, emotional and legal problems, and Michael Jordan, Monica Seles, Mike Tyson and Diego Maradona all have marched back into the arenas where they once towered over opponents and dwarfed their sports. From the rusty Jordan lifting a flawed Chicago Bull team to the NBA semifinals to Seles giggling and grunting her way to a U.S. Open final to Tyson stamping his label on a tomato can named Peter McNeeley to Maradona flashing his old skills, their stories have been sunny if not quite storybook.
The comeback tale of Mario Lemieux, who once owned hockey the way Tyson ruled the heavyweights, may or may not have a happy ending, but it certainly had a page-turning Chapter 1. After 18 months away from hockey to deal with a series of medical crises that included Hodgkin's disease, two operations on his chronically sore back, a rare bone infection and a case of anemia, Lemieux has returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins feeling like the $4.5 million that the Penguins are paying him. Lemieux said he was not coming back to be an average player—Would Michael want to be a sixth man? Would Maradona play for a club team?—and on opening night in Pittsburgh last Saturday, he was as good as his word. Stationed at his familiar spot along the left wing boards on the Penguin power play, the four-time scoring champion and two-time MVP assisted on four goals in an 8-3 drubbing of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"Mario is Mario," Toronto coach Pat Burns said after the game. Mario demurred. He said that he was off his game, that he had a little rink rust, that his vision of the play is still not 20-20. "In a couple more games, I'll be more relaxed," Lemieux said. "I've been nervous for a couple of days. I wasn't patient enough to wait on some shots. I rushed a few." Lemieux had six shots—not counting a goal that was disallowed by the referee—in addition to the four points that instantly propelled him to the top of the league's scoring chart. Maybe Lemieux was a stride slower and his opening-night artistry did not much surpass paint-by-numbers, but that didn't matter on the score sheet.
Lemieux has skated this trail before. This was the third time he has come back after missing at least 38 games in a season and the seventh time he has returned from injuries after being out at least 10 games. In 1990-91 he played in only 26 games because of a herniated disk; his back ailment also kept him out of all but 22 games in '93-94. He has been an ethereal presence as much as a player. Mario's comebacks are nothing new in Pittsburgh, though this one was more significant because many observers had doubts—Lemieux included—that he would ever return.
Although his comeback did not involve a prison term, a stabbing, drug rehabilitation or minor league baseball, it did involve golf. Lemieux is a fervent low handicapper, and he spent part of his sabbatical with metal woods instead of Sherwoods in his hands, which raised inevitable questions about his dedication to hockey. For a definitive answer about how much this comeback means to him, however, you don't have to look beyond his pecs. The 30-year-old Lemieux has what look suspiciously like muscles peeking from his torso after five months of workouts with personal trainer Tom Plasko, who has had him stretching, riding a stationary bike, running on a treadmill and even lifting weights. The new conditioning program is a slight variation of the old one, as teammate Ron Francis related to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week about playing golf with Lemieux in the summer of 1991: "I said, 'Mario, do you ever work out in the summer?' He said, 'Yeah.' I was actually surprised. I said, 'You do? What do you do?' He said, 'Starting August 1, I don't order french fries with my club sandwich.' "
This season Pittsburgh is betting the franchise on the Franchise. Penguin general manager Craig Patrick traded talented but high-priced veterans such as Larry Murphy, Luc Robitaille, Ulf Samuelsson and Kevin Stevens in an effort to inject youth and speed into the lineup and to make room in the budget for Lemieux's salary and the $11.3 million lump sum the Penguins are scheduled to pay him next September. The Penguins have run a major advertising campaign around him: THE THREE MOST FEARED WORDS IN HOCKEY—MARIO IS BACK, which, after the saga of Mario's back, has a nice ring to it.
Lemieux didn't miss a preseason practice this year and plans to play 60 to 70 matches, skipping the second of back-to-back games and passing on some West Coast trips. If history—or the Penguin opener—is any indication, 60 games will be plenty. Lemieux won the scoring title with 160 points in 60 games in 1992-93, his last relatively healthy season, and he will now be aided by the stricter enforcement of the rules against obstruction, which is something that Lemieux had lobbied for in the past. With the anticipated glut of power plays, more open ice and the Penguins' ability to gun it on offense, a healthy Lemieux could put up some Sega numbers and turn wingers Tomas Sandstrom and Bryan Smolinski into 45-goal scorers. "If you can't skate these days, you can't play," Lemieux says. "We've got a lot more speed than we've had in the past."
There was no pay-per-view party in Atlantic City or Las Vegas like the ones thrown for Seles and Tyson, none of the major-network fawning that Jordan received, but ESPN and Hockey Night in Canada and 17,181 at the Igloo knew a proper comeback when they saw it. In pregame festivities, Lemieux was the last player introduced, and the home crowd went ballistic. Fireworks exploded from the scoreboard. Then for the next 2� hours, Lemieux and the Penguins made their own fireworks.
He feels good. He looks good. The four best words in hockey are, Mario is still Mario.