- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2000

PITTSBURGH The highway sign by the Squirrel Hill Tunnel spoke for all of Pittsburgh yesterday: "Welcome Back Mario."

Although Mario Lemieux never actually left town, he made history last night when he ended a 3 and 1/2-year retirement and skated as the first owner/athlete in pro sports since the Chicago Bears' George Halas in 1929.

As if it was scripted, it took Lemieux just 33 seconds to camp behind the Toronto net and set up the game's first goal. But then, the No. 1 pick in the 1984 draft had scored on his first NHL shift and recorded an assist on the first shift of his first home game, too.

Lemieux's flair for the dramatic continued at 9:27 of last night's second period when he gave Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead by one-timing a pass from Jaromir Jagr past Maple Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph.

"Jags made a great play," Lemieux said. "He knew I was coming late. I yelled at him for the puck. He gave it to me and I one-timed it. It's great to score a goal in your first game back."

Less than four minutes later, Lemieux the only NHL player to average two points per game for his career made it a three-point night, feeding Jan Hrdina with a no-look pass.

"I'm a little surprised by the way I played after being off for 3* years, but my plan was to play at a high level if I could," the 35-year-old Lemieux said after being named the No. 1 star in the Penguins' 5-0 romp. "It was a great start. That took a little pressure off of everybody on the line. It gave us a little bit of confidence, and we played pretty well the whole game. Considering that I had been off for a long time, I'm satisfied with the effort."

So was the SRO crowd of 17,148 tickets were reportedly selling for as much as $1,000 on E-Bay that welcomed back No. 66 to Mellon Arena on Mario Lemieux Place. Lemieux's first name and his number were projected before the game on the roof of the building in which he led the Penguins to Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and 1992.

Lemieux the prime mover of the investor group that rescued the Penguins from bankruptcy court and a probable fold or move Sept. 3, 1999 was greeted with a standing ovation and chants of "Mario, Mario" when he stepped on the ice for warmups. There were more cheers when Lemieux's 4-year-old son, Austin, lowered his father's retired jersey from the ceiling, during two highlight videos, when Lemieux took the ice for good and when he was introduced in the starting lineup.

"I've been thinking about this since I started training two months ago," said Lemieux, who admitted to pregame jitters. "It was a great experience being part of a team again. It was a great feeling when I stepped on the ice. It was a moment I'll cherish… . It's great for the city, great for the fans, great for hockey."

Lemieux also was pleased that there was more room to operate than when he left. The clutching, grabbing, defensive style prevalent in the NHL in the mid-1990s Lemieux called it "football on skates" was what made him retire in 1997.

It certainly wasn't because he had slowed down. Lemieux had just won his second straight scoring title and sixth overall. And he had recovered from the Hodgkin's disease that sidelined him for 23 games in 1993 and from the ailing back that kept him out for the first 50 games of the 1990-1991 season, all but 22 games of 1993-1994 and all of 1994-1995.

"The league is giving the great players the opportunity to display their talents now, [unlike] three or four years ago," Lemieux said. "We have to entertain people, bring more people into the building and to our sport. It's up to us who have a lot of talent to do the best we can to put a show on the ice.

"I've come back through adversity a lot worse than [such an extended layoff]. This is the easiest of all the comebacks. Before my first one, I lay in bed for three months. I had to rebuild all the muscles in my legs before the playoffs. This is just a matter of being patient until I get my game at least to where it was three years ago. I have a lot of confidence that I can do that."

So does ex-Penguin Jay Caulfield, whom Lemieux asked to be his personal trainer last month when he decided to attempt the comeback.

"Like all the great players, Mario has the desire to be the best," said Caulfield, who kept their daily 60-to 90-minute on-ice sessions and follow-up stationary bike workouts a secret for weeks. "He's not coming back to be half or three quarters of what he was. He's coming back to be what he was like before or even better. That drive made Mario work hard every day, seven days a week. I played five years with Mario, and he wasn't healthy for the bulk of that time. He rarely practiced. He just played the games. And he still won scoring titles. Now he feels healthy and strong. But he's 35. If he didn't do this now, he would probably miss his opportunity."

Lemieux certainly made the most of the opportunity last night.

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