Mario Lemieux never had a problem with comebacks.
Injuries and illness forced him to do it often enough that he took an almost-perverse delight in making the experts look foolish. Through all those struggles, Lemieux said he would never come back to be an average player.
That fear drove him out of hockey the first time. It's also why, on the heels of reports the Hall of Famer is about to lace up skates again for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Lemieux deserves the benefit of the doubt.
He knows what everybody is thinking: The sporting landscape is already littered with comebacks that make us want to avert our eyes -- even without considering boxing. It's the same reason we have so little trouble recalling the successful ones.
Michael Jordan left basketball to grieve for a murdered father and dabble in baseball, but came back to win three NBA titles. Running back John Riggins walked away from football and the Redskins in July 1980, proving just how much of a maverick he was. A season later, Riggins returned and stayed long enough to get a Super Bowl ring.
The list of failures, though, is much longer. Magic Johnson retired on the eve of the 1991 NBA season, had second thoughts a few months later, and even played in the All-Star game. But his repeated offers to return were laughed off by the sport he served so brilliantly, and he never played an NBA game again.
Jim Palmer turned up for spring training in 1991, seven years after he wrapped up a sterling career. He had the good sense to abandon his comeback there. His fastball barely reached 75 mph and he routinely threw as many balls as strikes.
A month later, it was tennis great Bjorn Borg who came back and went almost as quickly. Within weeks he fled to the senior tour, where he stayed until his second retirement in June. The following summer, two decades after he won seven swimming gold medals and set seven world records, 1972 Olympian Mark Spitz tried to make the U.S. team headed for Barcelona. He headed back into retirement instead, beaten by youngsters Matt Biondi and Tom Jager.
Calling it quits is always tough on an athlete, tougher still on the great ones who leave with their skills largely intact. Football's Jim Brown and baseball's Sandy Koufax walked away rather than risk the legacies they had so carefully crafted. No less daunting a task awaits Lemieux, who owns the Penguins these days.
When he quit hockey at the end of the 1996-97 season, Lemieux was just 31 and coming off the second of back-to-back scoring championships. What made those two seasons all the more remarkable was that Lemieux sat out the 1994-95 season and played only 22 games the season before.
He was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in January 1993, halfway through the season. Despite spotting the rest of the league 20 games while he underwent treatment, Lemieux returned in March, piled up 30 goals and 26 assists in his final 20 games and won the scoring championship with 161 points.
Even more than the numbers, though, or his tenacity, Lemieux's greatness was defined by the way he changed the game. Before Lemieux came along, with the notable exception of Wayne Gretzky, playmakers were small and elusive and scorers were big, overpowering skaters whose job was to turn up at the end of an assist. Like Johnson in basketball, Lemieux came along at a time of transition in hockey and proved that size, power and finesse could be bundled into a single package.
He proved that a big guy holding the puck could not just see over the top of the defense, but have the deft touch of the little guys and the imagination to get it there. Or, if need be, to finish the play by scoring himself. But when Lemieux left, that was getting tougher than ever.
During the 1997-98 season, clutching and grabbing looked to be at an all-time high and scoring had definitely reached its lowest ebb. League bosses wisely launched a counteroffensive against the rough stuff. They implemented a two-referee system for all games this season and, still smarting from the Marty McSorley incident, cracked down hard on the stick work. All of that impressed Lemieux enough to consider coming back.
One of the first people he consulted was current Pittsburgh star Jaromir Jagr. The Czech-born center became Lemieux's heir, as much for his playing style as the way he assumed the mantle of leading the Penguins. The first report back was not encouraging.
''The league is tougher and tougher, the guys are getting bigger and stronger, it's not going to be easy and he knows that,'' Jagr said.
But the employee had few doubts his boss would find a way to make it work.
''I know one thing, he's not coming back to be a stiff,'' Jagr said. ''He's coming back to be the best.''
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com
HEAD:Let's hope Lemieux doesn't waste legacy
CREDIT:AP Photo/Gary Tramontina
CAPTION:Mario Lemieux waves to the crowd during an awards ceremony in 1997. Lemieux plans to end his retirement.
BYLINE1:By ALAN ROBINSON
BYLINE2:AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH -- Maybe only Mario Lemieux, already the king of comebacks, could pull this off.
Lemieux, who came back from cancer and a one-year layoff from back pain to be hockey's dominant player before retiring at age 31 in 1997, will return to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a one-of-a-kind role: player-owner.
The news of Lemieux's comeback, which the Penguins will officially announce Friday, sent shock waves through the Pittsburgh dressing room Thursday. It also is a huge publicity jolt for the NHL, which has struggled since the retirements of Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky to find a marketable superstar.
Lemieux's return to the ice probably won't occur until the end of the month -- he needs about three weeks of hard, physical work in practice to get into game shape -- but it will be hockey's equivalent to Michael Jordan leaving the owner's box and putting on a jersey again.
Super Mario, indeed.
''This is a day in history. It's a total shock,'' defenseman Bob Boughner said. ''It's huge for a lot of us who have never played with Mario. I know I'm looking forward to being part of history in the making.''
History will be made the first time the Hall of Famer pulls down his retired No. 66 from Mellon Arena's rafters and wears it again, if only because he will be the first in the modern era to own a major pro sports team and play for it at the same time.
Lemieux, 35, must relinquish his spot on the NHL's Board of Governors and probably will disassociate himself from most of the team's day-to-day business affairs, but can remain as owner.
The NHL board must approve such an arrangement but, given the chance to sell tickets for Lemieux's comeback tour, it's doubtful any NHL owner would seriously fight his return.
And look at it this way: What other owner could lure Mario Lemieux out of retirement and pay him only minimum wage? Of course, no other owner could get a huge boost at the box office by putting himself in uniform, either.
''I came in today and I heard a scream from the back room,'' said Jaromir Jagr, who replaced Lemieux as the Penguins' leader and hockey's dominant scorer. ''They were saying on the radio that Mario might come back. I think a lot of guys are really happy. Now they're going to get to play with a legend.''
Jagr learned of Lemieux's planned comeback 10 days ago, but didn't tell his teammates.
''He mentioned there was a possibility he was going to come back, and I believed him,'' said Jagr, a teammate of Lemieux's on the Stanley Cup-winning teams in 1991 and 1992. ''He said he's got a feeling this is a pretty good team, and he feels like he can help the team.''
If Lemieux can play at anywhere near his previous level -- and many hockey historians consider the six-time NHL scoring champion to be the most gifted player ever -- he would instantly elevate the Penguins to a prime contender for the Stanley Cup.
They reached the second round of the playoffs without him the last two seasons, and are 13-10-3 and in second place in the Atlantic Division going into Saturday's game at Toronto.
''He believes with a little luck, we can do some things this year,'' Jagr said. ''He is pretty confident about this team and confident that he can help the team to go to where all of us want to go.''
Lemieux may have had another reason to return. He has told friends his 6-year-old son, Austin, who already is skating, has asked why he doesn't play anymore.
As private as ever, he began his secretive comeback about a month ago. So as not to draw attention, he started skating not at the team's practice rink but at one managed by former Penguins coach Kevin Constantine, who was fired by Lemieux and general manager Craig Patrick a year ago.
Assistant coach Joe Mullen, a longtime Lemieux teammate and fellow Hall of Famer, became suspicious when he noticed Lemieux losing weight. However, rookie coach Ivan Hlinka, who will be in the unique role of coaching his boss, said he had no clue.
''He looks to be in great shape,'' Mullen said. ''If Mario comes back, he's going to throw himself totally into it. With his concentration and skill level, if he's going to do this, he's going to do it all the way.''
Still, the question persists: Can the man whose very name translates into The Greatest in French be hockey's greatest player again, or at least a reasonable facsimile?
''He's still young (35), and I think if he comes back he will be the best again,'' defenseman Darius Kasparaitis said.
Jagr said, ''I know one thing, he's not coming back to be a stiff. He's coming back to be the best.''
However, Jagr, whose own scoring is down considerably this season, warned Lemieux it is tougher than ever for scorers to locate open ice and operate with the puck. It was the clutching, grabbing and holding that less-talented players used to neutralize stars that helped drive Lemieux from the league in 1997.
''The league is tougher and tougher, the guys are getting bigger and stronger, it's not going to be easy and he knows that,'' Jagr said. ''Every game is tough.''
This will not be Lemieux's first comeback, or his second.
In 1993, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, cancer of the lymph nodes, and missed much of that season. He sat out the 1994-95 season after recovering from the cancer and a second bout with back trouble, but returned to lead the Penguins to within one victory of a third trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996.
Lemieux, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame months after his retirement under a special exemption, gained control of the Penguins in federal bankruptcy court on Sept. 3, 1999. He was a major creditor because of deferred payments the team owed him from his playing contracts.
At the time, he was asked if he might ever play again.
''I couldn't afford to pay myself,'' he said.
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