- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2001

PITTSBURGH At an age when most players are beginning to feel their years, he has never felt better. Or trained harder. Or anticipated a season more eagerly. Or wanted to win a scoring title so badly.
Just when it seems Mario Lemieux should be winding down his career again after winning six NHL scoring titles and two Stanley Cups and staging one of the greatest comebacks ever by a world-class athlete, he is gearing up for the sequel.
"No, not at all," Lemieux said when asked if his career the second part of it, that is was nearing its end again after a very successful comeback last season.
"I plan on playing for a long time," he said.
To those who know Lemieux, who saw him struggle through years of back pain so severe he couldn't tie his skates, through months of anxious worry about his Hodgkin's disease, it is understandable why he seems as determined and as focused as a rookie.
His 44 months off from the game he once dominated gave him a greater appreciation of his talents, and the desire to display them. Certainly, his comeback as Lemieux the player made Lemieux the Pittsburgh Penguins team owner wealthier. But this was not all about money or preserving the franchise in Pittsburgh for the long term.
When Lemieux came out of retirement in late December a return so stunning and so unexpected that some Penguins fans initially refused to believe it was true he simply missed playing hockey. Scoring goals. Being one of the guys again in a sweaty locker room, rather than one of the suits in a luxury suite.
Much like Michael Jordan missed being Michael Jordan the star, the icon, the idolized, the greatest Mario Lemieux missed being Mario Lemieux. Much more private than Jordan, he did not miss the trappings of stardom, for sure the autograph-seekers, the endorsements, the idolatry that seems to mean much more to Jordan but he missed the challenges and the demands of being one of his sport's all-time greats. And he realized that if he did not come back now, it would be too late in a year or two.
That is why, even after totaling 35 goals and 41 assists in 43 comeback games last season, a 1.77 points per game pace that was easily the best in the league, Lemieux did not lapse into his previous offseason routine of golf, gourmet meals and the good life.
He took a month or so off to let his body rest from the Penguins' unexpectedly deep run to the Eastern Conference finals, then started working out vigorously with conditioning expert and former teammate Jay Caufield. Remember, this is the man who once considered offseason conditioning to be, in his own words, "not ordering the fries with my sandwich."
He also went through an entire training camp for the first time since 1996, something he did not have last season when he returned in late December weighing in the mid 240s. He is down now to about 225, the lowest he's been in years.
"I think it is going to make a huge difference for me, maybe not early in the season but toward the end," Lemieux said. "I thought last season that I was maybe faster than I was in the past, for maybe about a month. I felt as good as I ever did."
Lemieux, who will turn 36 tomorrow, knew that conditioning would have to be a priority not just to play a full season for the first time in five years but to play in his first Olympic Games.
To make sure he doesn't tire down the stretch, as he seemed to in the Penguins' five-game playoff elimination by New Jersey, he will watch his playing time. He wants to go no more than 20 minutes a game rather than the 25-26 minutes he averaged last season, when he played not only on the power play, but also on the penalty-killing unit.
He will also skip selected road games, usually when the Penguins play on back-to-back nights. However, he plans to play every home game, if only because he understands that many fans buy tickets specifically to see him play.
He also has another goal beyond winning a third Stanley Cup, which would be a decided long shot as the Penguins regroup after trading five-time scoring champion Jaromir Jagr to the Washington Capitals.
Despite sitting out what could be a significant number of games, he wants to win a seventh scoring title. And if doing so prevents Jagr from matching him by winning a sixth title, let the rivalry begin.
"It is always my goal to win the scoring title," Lemieux said.
And if Jagr is the man he has to beat?
"We've always pushed each other every game to win the scoring title," he said. "This isn't going to be any different just because he's on another team. It should be an exciting race."
Of course, Lemieux also won't have Jagr to pass to, either. His training camp linemates were Kevin Stevens, who also played on Lemieux's line at times last season before winding up on the checking line, and the just-out-of-retirement Stephane Richer, who at 35 is the youngest of the three.
Not that it really matters that much to Lemieux who plays on his line. Remember, this is the man who once had a 199-point season playing alongside Robbie Brown, Bob Errey and Dan Quinn.
"I set my standards high, and I usually achieve them," Lemieux said. "I don't want to be just another player. I want to be the best."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide