Gary Roberts, Mario Lemieux, and Tie Domi (Mario Lemieux Fantasy Hockey Camp)
In last year's Mario Lemieux fantasy camp, one goaltender became known for making impressive saves on the tournament’s host. Said goalie had no pedigree. He was typical of the Lemieux campers, just an ex-high school hockey player.
He didn’t attend this year’s camp.
“He wasn’t invited,” said the tournament’s host, a grin splitting his features.
Mario Lemieux was kidding. Probably.
But the Lemieux fantasy camp is known for laughter as much as anything. A good time is had by all. That includes the hockey legends as well as the beer-leaguers.
All proceeds go to the Mario Lemieux Foundation, and lots of great passes go from the stars to the campers. That was evident in this year’s edition, held this past weekend at Consol Energy Center and the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy and their ilk are out there to make you look good, in part because vice-versa isn’t likely.
Four teams are assembled, each dotted by a few NHL legends. But the legends don’t often shoot. Sergei Gonchar, just a year removed from the NHL, instinctively rifled home a one-timer during Friday’s game and immediately looked sheepish.
At the Lemieux camp, the pros all turn playmaker. Tough guys Tie Domi and Jay Caufield display a skill set that’s far better than yours. Three-time All-Star goaltender Curtis Joseph does pretty well playing out. Gary Roberts streaks after loose pucks, but keeps his elbows down. That appears to require a very deliberate effort.
Friday’s games at Consol Energy Center were open to the public, and a solid crowd braved the snow to see Lemieux. Lemieux plays a game for each team and, at 50, he’s still pretty good. “Elegant” seems the right word. I know, because he told me.
Start the comeback rumor: Lemieux will return to the Penguins and play the power play. It sounds crazy, but with the man advantage, he could probably still produce.
I always go. Not to skate. God, no. That’s nobody’s fantasy. But the tournament’s host annually reminds me I have a standing offer to play goal.
I just enjoy the kibitzing. Friday night, I discussed the state of the Penguins with Lemieux, Bryan Trottier, Eddie Johnston, Pierre Larouche and my longtime friend, camper Tom Parent. Trottier, Johnston and Larouche served as coaches.
Can you be star-struck at 55? That’s 12 Stanley Cups, two Hall-of-Famers, 1,609 goals and 32 shutouts talking hockey. (The group consensus: The Penguins are playing better. Much more fluid out of their zone, and on the attack.)
Later, I was on one of the benches during a pre-game warm-up. Caufield skated over and we talked about Lemieux scoring five goals five ways on Dec. 31, 1988. Caufield passed to Lemieux for his last goal, the empty-netter. Over a quarter-century later, we expressed frustration that Lemieux finished that season with 199 points, not 200.
Coffey, also a member of that year's Penguins, joined the conversation and the annoyance. (At 54, he can still fly, by the way.) “How did we not get him 200 points?” Coffey said.
Lemieux got two goals in that season’s final game, a visit to Philadelphia. But he couldn’t tack on one more point to reach 200.
Lemieux certainly didn’t finish 1988-89 in a slump: He had 18 goals in his last nine games. Not points. Goals. He also dished eight assists during that span.
I asked Coffey how many points Lemieux, in his prime, would post in today’s locked-down NHL. “A hundred-forty, a hundred forty-five,” replied Coffey. How many would you get, Paul? “I’m out there with him, right? A hundred-twenty.”
Let’s check the video from 1988-89. Find an extra assist and get Lemieux to 200 points. The NHL would have long since done that for Wayne Gretzky.
I had a tremendous seat for the camp’s games Friday: On the photographer’s platform in one of the rink’s corners.
At one point, Lemieux tried to score right off a face-off. He failed. He turned, pointed at me, and laughed.
That happened before, with one big difference: Lemieux scored and it cost me $6,600. Google it. It’s a funny story. Why couldn’t he have missed then?
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).