Saturday, October 20, 2007

ARCHIVE: Lemieux leaves with a heavy heart


CBC Sports Online Jan. 24, 2006

Mario Lemieux retires with 1,723 points in 915 games. (Getty Images)

Mario Lemieux is leaving the game he loves once again. This time with a broken heart.

Plagued by a troublesome cardiac illness that prevents him from playing at the breathtaking level he was accustomed to, Lemieux called an end to his second coming Tuesday.

"This is it," said a sombre Lemieux, who also briefly retired in 1997 only to return midway through the 2000 season.

"It hurts."

Lemieux's "hurts" have often been as big a story as his scoring prowess.

The Pittsburgh Penguins superstar has had to battle through numerous injuries during his Hall-of-Fame career, including a chronically bad back, sore hips and cancer.

This time, it was Lemieux's heart that failed him.

Lemieux's career was finally derailed by an atrial fibrillation, a fluttering in his heart that causes his pulse to dramatically speed up at times.

The illness wasn't expected to be career-threatening, but when doctors had little success treating the condition with medication, Lemieux came to the conclusion it was time to retire.

"Even to this day I'm not feeling 100 per cent," said Lemieux, who is considering surgery to correct the ailment.

"That was the most frustrating thing for me."

Unmatched in his glory years

During his prime, Lemieux boasted a combination of physical skills unmatched in the history of the NHL.

His effortless stride, exceptional hands and extraordinary reach made him the best one-on-one player ever.

Like a maestro, he artfully dictated the tempo of the world's fastest game.

While Wayne Gretzky seemed to be two steps ahead of everyone else, and Bobby Orr played as if he had the puck on a string, Lemieux's skill was an uncanny ability to create the illusion he was working outside hockey's space-time continuum.

He could humiliate defenders with dazzling moves or hypnotize them by not moving at all.

For a big man he was elusive. Like a shark, Lemieux would cruise unmolested, legs barely pumping, down a wing or through the slot. Opponents waited in fear for him to strike.

Once in perfect position, his lightning-quick hands would reward an open linemate with a feathered pass. Or he'd snap a laser shot past a surprised goalie, one who'd likely been the victim of Lemieux's magnificence dozens of times.

"I knew when he was up for his next shift," said former NHL netminder and current TSN hockey analyst Glenn Healey, who played against Lemieux. "I didn't even care who was on the ice before him. It was 'when's he getting out?'

"The game went at his pace and it was scary to play against him because you knew that at any time when he wanted he could beat you."

Lemieux leaves the game the NHL's seventh leading all-time scorer with 690 goals and 1,033 assists.

Staggering statistics to be sure, but even more impressive considering Lemieux achieved those lofty numbers in a mere 915 career games.

Injuries take a toll

2002 Olympics

Hockey fans often wonder what the numbers would look like if Lemieux's brilliance wasn't consistently muted by injury.

"I think the thing that sticks out for me is just the adversity he's faced throughout his career, on and off the ice and how he came through it," said phenom Sidney Crosby, Lemieux's heir apparent in Pittsburgh.

"I think it's a lesson that everyone can take."

In addition to the recent heart ailment, Lemieux has had to deal with two major hip problems since his return. The injuries cost him most of the 2001-02 and 2003-04 seasons.

"In my mind the most talented player I've ever seen," said Orr. "If it were not for health problems, God only knows what his numbers would have been."

But the injury didn't stop Lemieux from leading Canada to Olympic gold at the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002.

It wasn't the first, or the last, time Lemieux would carry Canada to international glory.

The goal heard round the world

In 2004, he captained Team Canada to victory in the inaugural World Cup, but his biggest moment on the international stage came during the 1987 Canada Cup.

Lemieux, only 22 years old at the time, played the role of sniper on a line centred by Gretzky. The result was magical.

Lemieux led the tournament with 11 goals, none more dramatic than his last.

Most Canadians can vividly recall Lemieux taking a pass from Gretzky and firing the Cup-winning goal past the Soviet netminder.

The goal would be called one of the greatest in Canadian history, just a notch below Paul Henderson's Summit Series winner in 1972.

And it would prove to be a seminal moment in Lemieux's career. Before that tournament, Lemieux was good, some would say, but not truly great.

According to critics, the pre-Canada Cup Lemieux would float and was prone to taking shifts off. His half-pack-a-day cigarette habit led others to question whether Lemieux's heart and dedication would ever match his immense talent.

The season after the Canada Cup victory, he won the Hart Trophy as NHL's most valuable player and the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer, bringing to an end Gretzky's seven-year streak of winning both.

Lemieux would go on to win two more MVP awards and five more scoring titles.

He was also a dominating playoff performer. Lemieux appeared in 107 post-season games, scoring 76 goals and 96 assists, leading the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1990-91 and 1991-92.

Those accolades and achievements paved the way for his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the fall of 1997.

Lofty heights from humble beginnings

Born on Oct. 5, 1965 in the Montreal suburb of Ville Emard, Lemieux was skating by the age of two and playing organized hockey at six.

At age 16 Lemieux decided he wanted to focus all his attention on the game and dropped out of high school in Grade 10.

His dedication to the game paid off.

In his final season of junior hockey with the Laval Voisins, Lemieux scored 133 goals and registered 282 points, 11 of them coming in his last game. He was taken with the first pick in 1984 NHL entry draft.

Lemieux debuted in storybook fashion, scoring his first NHL goal on his first shift with his first shot -- a backhand against Pete Peeters of the Boston Bruins on Oct. 11.

Once word spread of his exploits, attendance at Penguins games rose 46 per cent.

Said current New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather at the time: "Without Lemieux, they pack up the team and move to another city."

66 versus 99

Lemieux began wearing No. 66 during his early junior days. Whether he flipped Gretzky's number on its head as an homage or in defiance is unclear. But it would set in motion a career's worth of comparisons that Lemieux would spend much of his time discouraging.

Early in his career, Lemieux, unlike Gretzky, was reluctant to promote the game. In fact, he seemed to do his best to undermine it.

At times he was difficult with the media. When he did speak, more often that not it was to complain about the quality of play.

One of the reasons for Lemieux's retirement in 1997 was the rampant hooking and obstruction so prevalent at the time.

He even went so far as to call the NHL, "a garage league."

Things were different the second time around.

The time off rekindled Lemieux's love affair with hockey. When he returned he wasn't so sullen and distant. Instead, he seemed to embrace his role of superstar ambassador.

He also returned as an owner. In 1999, Lemieux assembled the group that saved the Penguins from bankruptcy. Lemieux – as he'd done 15 years earlier as a rookie – again rescued the dying franchise.

The new-look NHL and its accompanying salary cap was supposed to give new life to his Penguins. With a revamped lineup full of veterans and capped by Crosby, many pundits picked the team to go far in the playoffs.

Lemieux himself said the Penguins were among the five or six teams that had a "real good chance" to win the Stanley Cup.

But instead of thriving, the Pengins are floundering in the standings. And, despite Lemieux's best efforts, the hockey team doesn't have the new arena it needs to turn a profit. Many say it's only a matter of time before the Penguins leave town.

Lemieux doesn't want any part of it, and it would seem he'd rather sell the team than be known as the owner who relocates the team from Pittsburgh. He put the team up for sale earlier this month.

"I have so many great memories," said Lemieux. "I want to thank the fans in Pittsburgh.

"It's been an unbelievable ride."

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