A small price to pay for a savior. "Look at him," says Michel Goulet of the Quebec Nordiques pointing toward Lemieux, who towers over a clot of reporters. Members of both All-Star teams are gathered for a press conference at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Hartford on the day before their recent game. "Nothing bothers him," says Goulet, who is, like Lemieux, a French Canadian acquainted with the problems of expressing himself accurately in English. "He's so calm."
Lemieux draws questions he has heard many times before: How do you compare with Gretzky? ...Do you feel any different this year than last year? ...Are you excited about the All-Star Game?
Lemieux responds patiently: I'm not at the same level as Gretzky yet.... Yes, I feel more comfortable this year.... Sure, I'm excited. It's the best against the best. It'll be fun.
"I can't get him to speak up," a radio reporter complains. The writers snort, "The usual stuff." But Lemieux has been speaking English regularly for only two years, and it's hard to be expansive when you're mostly concerned with getting the noun and verb in the right sequence.
"Sometimes it was frustrating for me, especially last year," Lemieux says. "One time I was on Myron Cope's radio show and you know how he talks. [With a Pittsburgh dialect that challenges even American listeners.] I didn't understand a word. I just answered the questions, 'Yes...no...I think so.' "
Lemieux took Berlitz courses in English when he was a teenager playing junior hockey for the Laval team in Quebec, but he has found the only way to really learn a language is to become immersed in it. His method: "I watched a lot of soap operas last year."
While his self-education techniques might be unorthodox, it's clear that Lemieux takes the responsibilities of superstardom seriously. "It is something he's prepared for, because people have been talking about him since he was very young," says Gretzky, who was a household name in Canada when he was nine. "The hardest part is that sometimes people forget you're human."
There's the hitch. Lemieux is just 20. Adulthood doesn't just knock on the door and let itself in after you score your first NHL goal—which Lemieux did on his very first shift for the Penguins. "Mario sort of has a dual personality," says Bob Perno, one of Lemieux's agents. "Around the people he doesn't really know or people in the hockey world—teammates and reporters—he has an image he must project. And he knows that. Always smiling, taking things in stride. He has unbelievable maturity in that sense, a 20-year-old going on 28.
"But when you get him away from that scene, get him back home with friends, he reverts to being an 18-year-old. I remember the night before we signed his new contract this winter. There was still a lot of pressure. I was nervous, his dad was nervous. So we're sitting there in his apartment and Mario says, 'Let's play Intellivision Football.' I swear, he was more interested in beating me at Intellivision Football than he was about a multimillion-dollar contract. That's the flip side."
It is a flip side that includes a better-than-average impersonation of Elvis Presley and an equally good, but more improbable one, of the towering Lemieux as Pee-wee Herman. And like any growing lad, Lemieux gets his Z's. "Nobody sleeps as well as Mario," says teammate Terry Ruskowski, who rooms with him on the road. "He lives for sleep. He hits the bed and that's it. It irritates the hell out of me."