The comeback of Mario Lemieux is good news for everyone in the league
No one in the Penguins' executive offices thought much about owner Mario Lemieux's taking home a stationary bicycle from the players' weight room in early November. Nor was there a stir when Lemieux began coming to the office late or not at all. Employees did notice, as the month wore on, that Lemieux looked fitter than he had in years. His handshake seemed firmer, he smiled more, and in the words of Tom McMillan, Pittsburgh's vice president of communications, "Mario had this bounce in his step. No one knew why."
Everyone knows now, and the bounce is reverberating through the NHL. Lemieux's decision to return to the ice with the Penguins 3� years after he retired because of back pain and dissatisfaction with the defensive obstruction that was plaguing the game is the best thing to happen to the league since the 1994 lockout ended. For the first time since Wayne Gretzky retired after the 1998-99 season, the NHL has a boffo gate attraction and a player who can transcend hockey.
Lemieux's gorgeous play between 1984-85 and 1996-97 resulted in 1,494 points in 745 games and induction into the Hall of Fame. He's a mononymic star who was the most dominant player in the league when he left. Lemieux, 35, will most likely return to action on Dec. 27, when Pittsburgh begins a four-game home stand, and the Penguins, 14-11-3-1 through Sunday, will immediately become Stanley Cup contenders. In addition to bringing his unparalleled offensive ability, Lemieux should also keep Jaromir Jagr, Pittsburgh's supremely talented but often disruptive captain (SI, Nov. 27), in line. "He's the man, and whatever he says, I'm going to do it," says Jagr.
"This isn't great for the rest of us in the Eastern Conference," says Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, "but it's great for the game. I'd pay to see Mario play any day." Some of Ruff's money would go to Lemieux. The comeback will engender an unprecedented conflict: Lemieux will be a franchise owner and a dues-paying member of the NHL Players' Association. (There are no league rules prohibiting an owner from playing.) Lemieux won't vote on NHL issues as either a player or an owner, but he'll remain his teammates' and coaches' employer and one of commissioner Gary Bettman's employers as well. Lemieux rightly points out that the NHL game has opened up in the last two seasons because of the crackdown on obstruction and slashing infractions. However, play is as violent as ever. Should Lemieux thwack a nettlesome checker over the head with his stick, Bettman would have the unenviable duty of suspending one of his bosses.
Lemieux, who will pay himself the league average of $1.4 mil-lion for this season, says he "missed the game and missed the challenge of competing." Cynics who question his motives because he will gain financially by helping the Penguins sell tickets miss the larger point. Lemieux's reasons for returning are irrelevant. The return itself is a blessing.
Montreal's New Coach
Now That's Entertainment
Michel Therrien, the rookie coach who took over the Canadiens when Alain Vigneault was fired on Nov. 20, is a passionate, thickly built 37-year-old with porterhouse-sized hands and a preference for looking people in the eye. He was an only child raised on the hardscrabble streets of the east end of Montreal, and he's not far removed from working as a telephone-wire splicer (the kind of guy you see strapped to the top of a pole during winter storms) and as a bodyguard for Quebecois pop star Roch Voisine. Therrien isn't so much intimidated by his new role in turning around the once mighty Canadiens as he is invigorated. "This is the biggest challenge of my life," he says. "I'm just going to be myself."
That's good news for Montreal fans, who know that while working for Bell Canada, Therrien coached two junior teams to a combined record of 173-67-10 from 1993-94 through 1996-97. He also guided the Canadiens' AHL affiliate to a winning record over the past three seasons, and through Sunday he was 4-5-1-0 with Montreal, which was 5-13-2-0 before he took over.
Therrien's arrival is also a welcome change for those fans across North America who enjoy old-time hockey. During his coaching career Therrien has accosted a referee in a parking lot, fought both a rival coach and a rival player and employed numerous techniques to rattle opponents. In addition to pulling tricks such as slathering a visiting team's bench with wet paint, Therrien has jeered opposing players relentlessly during matches. Once, while coaching the Fredericton Canadiens in the minors, he spat his gum at St John's Maple Leafs goalie Francis Larivee, who said, "I think he lost his mind." Other times Therrien's needling got so intense that goalies would turn to flip him off, only to have Therrien's team score. "I used to hate him," says Sabres netminder Martin Biron, who played against Therrien's clubs in juniors and the minors, "but after a while I respected him for the success he had."