IN THE private utopia of the player long known as Pepe Lemieux, he is hoisting the 2009 Stanley Cup, as the crowd in San Jose's sold-out Shark Tank goes ballistic. California dreaming? San Jose had raced to a 24-3-2 record at week's end, so its first Cup is certainly a possibility. As for Lemieux's being part of it, well, if you really need a five-minute player in the Cup final, whom would you prefer on your fourth line: one-dimensional fighter Jody Shelley or a useful agitator like Lemieux?
Lemieux's game is hardly dynamic. Even in his heyday, he rarely beat defenders one-on-one and never went coast-to-coast, but he was so well regarded as a fount of springtime hockey wisdom that he might as well have been called Bobby Oracle. He had some fabulous playoffs in the first half of his career, including 10 goals in 20 games as a Canadiens rookie, and his Smythe-winning 13 goals and 16 points for New Jersey nine years later. At the point in the hockey calendar when scoring is at a premium, Lemieux actually had a superior points-per-game average: .678 in the playoffs compared with .656 in the regular season. This, Lemieux says, is "my intangible." But his total output over his final three NHL seasons—34 regular-season goals; one point in 12 playoff games in first-round losses for Phoenix and then Dallas—suggests his release on the eve of the 2003--04 season was less an abrupt dismissal by Stars G.M. Doug Armstrong ("I went for coffee, and [ Armstrong] said it's over," Lemieux recalls) than the end of a long goodbye.
Now Lemieux is trying to return to an altered NHL landscape, a clutch-and-grab-free world that has increased the premium on speed. As Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau says, "The game has changed since he last played. It's go-go-go. You can't slow down the game anymore to suit your style. You have to be able to skate. That was his problem when he quit: skating."
Lemieux bristles at the notion. He might be the fastest forward among these minor league Sharks, but his conspicuous strengths are driving to the net and, more important, staying there to trade some jostling for a scoring chance.
"If I got put on a fourth line up there tomorrow, playing eight, 10 minutes a game, I would be physical, I would have an impact," he says. "Would I be effective on the forecheck, the backcheck, winning puck battles? No doubt.... This league is no joke, not like the AHL I played in in 1986. And look at me—I'm not getting banged around; I'm not getting knocked on my ass. I have the puck on my tape more than most forwards on my team." Through Sunday he had five points in 10 games, including a game-winning goal.
Although hotel life in the AHL and a Skype relationship with wife Deborah, 12-year-old Brendan and 11-year-old Claudia are imperfect compromises, Lemieux refuses to attach a drop-dead date to a dream. Can't NHL scouts see what he sees? The neck and groin woes that plagued him late in his career have healed. His hockey IQ hasn't plummeted. "When everybody heard he was coming back, we thought he was crazy," says Carbonneau, a teammate on the champion 1986 Canadiens. "We still think he's crazy. But that's the best part of our world now: Nothing's impossible."
Says Lemieux, "I look forward to being on the ice at the Bell Centre in Montreal in February, and when I skate by their bench, I'll wink at my buddy Carbo."
ON HIS first shift in Manchester, an old Lemieux looks like the old Lemieux. He throws two checks, forces a turnover. Really, for Lemieux and San Jose, this is a win-win situation: He indulges his inner Quixote, and San Jose gets a risk-free audition. The only loss on this wintry night is 3--2 to the Monarchs. If Lemieux is "a little sluggish," in the words of an NHL team executive in attendance, "three or four quick strides, then he'd coast," he is also effective. He has a half-dozen hits, two shots on goal, finishes +1 and draws a tripping penalty that, like in the bad old days, he embellishes.
Lemieux has never worried that critics called him a diver, a cheap-shot artist, a turtle (initially he didn't fight Detroit's Darren McCarty, who rushed to Draper's defense in 1996) or a cannibal (he bit Calgary forward Jim Peplinski's finger in a playoff game). At dinner he looks across the table, fixes his deep blue stare and says, "I hope I get to piss people off [in the NHL] again. You piss them off by hitting a guy when it's time to hit, by winning the battle, by taking the puck away and going down the other end and scoring. That'll piss anybody off."