SI Vault
Alec Wilkinson
April 07, 2003
His financially strapped Penguins can't compete and his back hurts like hell. Is this any way for the great Mario Lemieux to finish his career?
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April 07, 2003

Unhappy Ending

His financially strapped Penguins can't compete and his back hurts like hell. Is this any way for the great Mario Lemieux to finish his career?

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Mario Lemieux at 37 is the sort of tall, handsome, polished and worldly figure one sees at Caribbean resorts, where an oil guy from Texas might ask him, "So what business you in, Mario?" He could live in Manhattan, he could live in Paris or Montreal or Los Angeles, but he has settled with his wife, Nathalie, and their four children in Pittsburgh. He keeps fancy wine from Bordeaux in a locker by the door of a steak house a few blocks from Mellon Arena, and he goes there often enough, he says, that he doesn't mind that the wine isn't being kept cool in his cellar. Except in Pittsburgh, where he is justifiably revered for his accomplishments and the loyalty he has shown to the city, he has never been a particularly sympathetic figure.

Lemieux is one of those rare people who has always been the center of attention though he never set out to be, so he never cultivated the tools he needed to make a favorable impression. Some people say that he was so coddled when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1984—If you don't want to do it, Mario, you don't have to—that he never learned how to occupy the role of athletic superstar, even one in a peripheral sport. But he is charming in private, even gracious, and people who know him take pleasure in his company. "I was impressed with him at the Olympics," says Detroit Red Wings star forward Brendan Shanahan. "You always watch the superstars to see how they behave, and he impressed me the most. He didn't try to distance himself, didn't miss a team meeting or a meal, he listened to what everyone had to say. He didn't want the team to be about him, the way some superstars do. He seemed really to enjoy it."

In the eyes of the young French Canadian players at Pittsburgh's training camp, who lace their skates while looking sideways at him, he sees the adulation for him that he knows exists in Canada, and he bears it gracefully. He isn't one of those stars who has one persona for the public and another for his private life. "He's such a consummate leader," says Penguins wing Steve McKenna, "that no matter who's involved, he treats everyone the same. He treats everyone as if they were Mario Lemieux."

In the career of an athlete who has endured back surgeries so serious that they will impair his movement for the rest of his life, and a confrontation with his own mortality in the form of cancer (Hodgkin's disease), it is difficult to identify the most vexing season, but surely among those in which Lemieux has been reasonably healthy, this season must be one of them. The Penguins were a luckless franchise when he joined them, and they appear to be nearly luckless now. Whether Lemieux retires this summer or next, the Penguins will not soon be anything like the powerhouse teams he led to Stanley Cups in 1991 and '92. Last week they defeated the New York Rangers 3-1 at Madison Square Garden, but they hadn't won any of their 16 games before that and through Sunday they were 26-42-6-5, the second-worst record in the league. Lemieux, who has averaged more goals per game (.78) than any other player in NHL history, hadn't scored in seven matches, and for the season he was an inglorious-24. He had led the league in scoring for much of this season only to fall behind in the last few weeks, partly from injury and partly from losing star wing Alex Kovalev in a February trade to the Rangers.

He and Kovalev had played well together—two heady and elegant skaters accustomed to finding open ice and each other. In addition, the team, of which Lemieux is the principal owner, is expected to lose at least $2 million this season and is close enough to insolvency that having shed several players with big contracts at the trade deadline last month, general manager Craig Patrick announced that the franchise could no longer compete.

The Vancouver Canucks' Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund, the Colorado Avalanche's Peter Forsberg, and the Boston Bruins' Joe Thornton are often regarded as the best forwards in hockey, but Lemieux, when he's healthy, probably is. After 12 games this season Lemieux had 29 points. In any stretch of 12 games throughout 2002-03, none of those others approached his production, and they play for teams of much greater parts. In Pittsburgh, Lemieux operates without much help. "He hasn't lost any skill," says Shanahan. "It's just easier to key on him now." Kovalev says, "Mario can still control a game, but no matter how good you are, you need one or two other guys who can draw attention."

Last week in Pittsburgh, at the team's practice rink, Lemieux described himself as "more of a one-on-one player" early in his career. "I would challenge the defensemen," he said, "but it seems like I'm not able to do that as much now. It's a little bit being older, but also the game is different. Athletes are better. Back then there were maybe two defensemen per team that you could go one-on-one with and beat every time. Now the skating's better. I have to rely on my teammates, my wingers." The wings in Pittsburgh, not long ago occupied by stars such as Kovalev and Jaromir Jagr, are impoverished. "It's got to be frustrating for Mario," says McKenna, who in 321 NHL games through Sunday had scored 17 goals. "It's tough to look over on your wing and see me, when you're used to seeing Kovalev."

Lemieux has always been a player of towering abilities, a one-off. He was never embraced the way Wayne Gretzky was. Lemieux's bearing is too formal. When he first retired, after the 1996-97 season, the league did not issue a press release saying, "No one will ever wear number 66 again," as it would with Gretzky's 99. Perhaps the reason is that Lemieux is so absurdly gifted—to begin with, he's 6'4" and 230 pounds—and everything he does seems so effortless that to root for him goes against several fundamental and nearly archetypal forms, such as the appeal of the underdog and the promised reward for discipline and hard work.

Lemieux was also always a little mouthy. He won the scoring tide in 1989. When the MVP award went to Gretzky, Lemieux pointed out that traditionally it was given to the league's scoring leader. He called the NHL a garage league in '92 for routinely allowing lesser players to impede better ones. Even so, in facing his illness and his injuries, which caused him to retire at 31 (he made his comeback in 2000-01), he has displayed considerable dignity. For years he has played in pain. He often used to appear in photographs wearing loafers and no socks, and the reason was that he couldn't bend over to put on socks or tie his shoes.

A man who is capable of such forbearance is not likely to abandon it in public or in response to questions from a writer. Lemieux doesn't exactly speak in truisms, but he's guarded. He's polite. He's cordial. He has a natural charisma. But even when he agrees to talk, it's clear that he has no intention of revealing anything. In Pittsburgh, Lemieux talked while the team practiced. He sat down carefully, wincing, on a leather couch in the locker room. "I got a sore back today," he said. He was wearing black shorts, an orange fleece top and a pair of those open-back sandals that old men used to wear to shuffle from the steam room to the massage table but now have become fashionable. He felt better earlier in the season, when he was playing about 24 minutes a game, but "it's tough at 37 to play that much," he said. "It's tough getting up in the morning. It's different from when I was 22 or 23 and could play three games in four nights." Then he dismissed the difficulty by saving, "Every athlete has to go through it."

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