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There was a Penguin in the land of Pittsburgh, whose name was Mario; and that Penguin was blameless and upright. He had 690 goals, 1,033 assists, two Stanley Cups, six scoring titles, three MVP awards and a manservant named Sidney Crosby, so that this man was the greatest of all the people in the Eastern Conference.
And a bunch of really bad stuff happened. He hurt his back and got cancer, he had hip surgery and a bad infection, his son was born frighteningly prematurely, he retired and unretired, his back hurt some more and so did his hip, and then he had something go wrong with his heart.
But every time, he’d come back and play great hockey, until this last time, and Tuesday he announced he was retiring for good. And that’s the super-condensed Book of Mario.
Have you ever listened to a soap-opera actress describe all the things that have happened to her character over the years? “And then I got shot, and then I had amnesia, and then a brain tumor, then my kids were kidnapped by the Russians. Then, my second season, I found out I’d been switched at birth with …”
That’s what watching the career of Mario Lemieux has been like. I can’t remember the last time I saw him without having a vague feeling that I was seeing a ghost.
The first time Lemieux retired, after the 1997 season at age 31, it was shocking because he was so young and still playing so well. But it also seemed like a real retirement, at least to me.
Maybe his bout with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1993 had made it easier to picture his mortality, or maybe it was just all those stories about how bad his back was. Maybe it was the way the game had changed from the high-scoring affair that had favored his skills early on to the clogged up, clutch-and-grab muckfest that made those skills all but superfluous. He was bitter about that.
Whatever it was, I thought he was gone for good, another Sandy Koufax, a bright shining star who burned out young and disappeared.
When he stayed away for a full year, then another, then another, then the start of another, long enough to turn 35, it never occurred to me — a person who could then look back at 35 from a distance of two creaky years — that he’d return.
So when he did return, I got the same feeling watching him that I’d soon have watching Michael Jordan’s comeback with the Washington Wizards, even though Lemieux’s comeback was nothing like Jordan’s, at least at first.
Jordan, who made his Washington debut 10 months after Lemieux’s December 2000 comeback game, was never much more than a shell of his former self in his two years with the Wiz. Lemieux was dynamite from his first shift back.
The man who had scored on his first shot on his first shift in the NHL did it again, collecting an assist 33 seconds after jumping back onto the ice. He finished that famous game against Toronto with a goal and two assists.
That year he scored 35 goals in 43 games, arguably a greater scoring pace than in his best goal-scoring season, 1989, when he had lit the light 85 times in 76 games.
Leaguewide, scoring had dropped 26 percent from 1989 to 2001. Lemieux scored 1.12 goals per game in ’89. Seventy-four percent of that dazzling rate would have netted him 35.6 goals in his 43 games in ’01, not even one more than he actually scored.
But Lemieux was 23 and healthy in 1989. In 2001 he was 35 and he practically had to be wheeled onto the ice.
Still, despite that incredible comeback, I never shook that watching-a-ghost feeling, especially as the injuries and missed games mounted in the years since.
Also, Lemieux wasn’t just a player in his second career. He was the Penguins’ principal owner, having put a group together to rescue the struggling franchise from bankruptcy court. It was just another way the new Mario seemed different from the old Mario.
Now the Penguins are for sale, partly because Lemieux doesn’t want to be the owner who moves them out of Pittsburgh, which is what will happen if the team isn’t able to get a new arena, which seems likely. This is a sad day among sad days for hockey fans in Pittsburgh.
If I could watch only one more hockey game and I could choose any one player in his prime to play in it, I’d choose Wayne Gretzky, not Lemieux, because Gretzky was an average-size guy who was a magician, not seeming to play under the same laws of nature as anyone else.
Lemieux was a little more of an overdog, big and fast. He was just a better athlete than anybody else, though I don’t mean to diminish his incredible hockey skills. He’d be my third choice, after Gordie Howe.
But Lemieux was that rare combination of a guy who came out of the womb bound for stardom and a guy who overcame Job-like adversity to regain that stardom once he’d had it and lost it.
It would take a Tolstoy to do his story justice. All we mere mortals can do is say goodbye and thanks, and wonder what might have been if all the troubles of the world hadn’t decided to perch on the broad shoulders of No. 66.
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Home-field Super Bowl bandwagon groans! [PERMALINK]
Congratulations to Associated Press writer Barry Wilner, who has joined up for one of this column’s hopeless causes, the campaign to have the Super Bowl played on the home field of one of the teams.
“If ever a Super Bowl was made to be played in a home stadium, Steelers-Seahawks is it,” read Wilner’s lead Wednesday.
“Just think: The road warriors against the unvanquished hosts. A dominant sixth seed needing one more away victory, and needing it at the NFL’s toughest venue for visitors.
“How juicy that would be.”
Welcome aboard, Wilner. I realize you’re a short-timer, practicing situational ethics, tailoring your views to the situation. But you know what they say about strange bedfellows, which is also what all of my old bedfellows say, though I don’t know why you want to bring that up.
Until the revolution, we Hopeless Causers will take all the allies we can get. We even think the Steelers and Seahawks are with us. Pittsburgh is the designated “home” team Feb. 5 at Ford Field in Detroit, but coach Bill Cowher announced Tuesday that the Steelers, who have gotten to the Super Bowl by winning three straight road playoff games, will wear their road whites.
“We’re not playing at Heinz Field so, in my mind, it’s an away game,” Cowher said.
Meanwhile, Seahawks players have hinted that the team’s “12th man” flag, which honors the fans at Qwest Field, will find its way to Ford Field, the better to make the Super Bowl field like a home game.
Well, good. We appreciate the sentiments here at Hopeless Cause Central, but isn’t this pathetic? The neutral-site Super Bowl is so sterile that teams are forced to pretend that it’s a home or road game.
Rise up, people! Send the Super Bowl home.
Previous column: Kobe Bryant, Rorschach test
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