The explanation for his terrific start this season, Lemieux said, was partly that he had trained assiduously and partly the team's remorseless power play. "I felt strong early," he said. "I skated better. Over the summer I had trained hard, doing the treadmill and running up hills. My back was sore at the beginning, but those point totals were a by-product of our power play being on fire. If you work on it early in the season, that can happen. Before other teams have a chance to adjust, you can get a lot of points."
When he was asked whether an injury is what had caused his production to slide (in the season's first 35 games he scored 63 points; in the last 44 matches he had 26), he shrugged and said, "I had Kovy [Kovalev] for a lot of the year, another guy who could carry the puck." Then, "The team's different now. We had to trade some guys we couldn't afford." The tone of his voice was resigned. "We got younger," he went on. "You do the best you can."
Recently a New York City newspaper suggested that Lemieux was going to sell the Penguins over the summer then sign somewhere else as a free agent—an option he declined several years ago out of loyalty to Pittsburgh and its fans. He returned to the game in December 2000 for several reasons—so that his then four-year-old son, Austin, could see him play, because he loved hockey and missed it, and perhaps also to protect his investment. (He bought the team in 1999, a year after the club declared bankruptcy; at that point the Penguins owed him $32.5 million in deferred salary.) A Pittsburgh newspaper said that Lemieux could have gotten most of the money he was owed from a new owner, who would have moved the team to a new city, and then come out of retirement in New York or Montreal and made $20 million a year. When asked about these reports, Lemieux said, "When I left, my back was in bad shape. I was really tired from the radiation, and I couldn't recover as fast as I wanted to, and I also wanted to enjoy my life and my family. When I came back, it helped sell tickets, but we had a great team, with Jagr and [Martin] Straka and [Robert] Lang and Kovalev, and I thought we could go all the way. I thought if I came back we could do it."
The biggest question concerning Lemieux is whether he will return to play next season. Kovalev thinks he will. "He'd love to play next year," he says. "It depends on his health." Lemieux has fielded the question often enough that he said, without reflection, "I'm going to sit down over the summer with my family and friends and evaluate myself hard and how I'm playing and where the franchise is going."
The next day in New York City, while his teammates ran through drills during the morning skate at Madison Square Garden, Lemieux had back spasms and so he lay on the trainer's table in the visitors' locker room. After practice, on his way to the bus, he walked delicately, like a man being careful not to press his heels too heavily against the pavement. The pain in his back, he said, is the result of the two surgeries, which left a crack in a vertebrae that never healed completely and irritates the nerves. Asked again about his retirement plans, he said, "You still going there, huh?" Then he said, "I'm not going to play until I'm 45 or 50. One day I'll have to move on." The day before he made one notable divergence from this position. When he was asked if he had already made up his mind but simply wasn't saying, he smiled, and said, "Yeah."