PITTSBURGH -- The comeback the NHL never dared to dream for begins Wednesday night, and not even the man making it knows exactly what to expect.
Mario Lemieux returns to the ice after a 3 1/2-year retirement, restoring some star power to what has been a largely faceless NHL since he and Wayne Gretzky quit -- and, he hopes, some offense to the slumping Pittsburgh Penguins.
Lemieux's return would be dramatic and virtually unprecedented even if there wasn't the added element of the sport's first Hall of Fame player-turned-owner transforming himself back into a player.
But, despite the Jordanlike buzz Lemieux's return has created in hockey, and the huge number of tickets it has sold in Pittsburgh, it is difficult to predict how successful it will be.
Guy Lafleur and Gordie Howe renounced their retirements after a short time to return to the NHL, and Ted Williams and other baseball stars spent years fighting World War II and the Korean War before returning to the majors. Michael Jordan played minor league baseball for a year before leading the Chicago Bulls to three more NBA titles.
But Lemieux has been away nearly four full seasons -- a virtual career for some less-skilled players -- and is now 35, certainly not old but still not young in a sport where speed and leg strength are everything.
Lemieux's quick hands and strong stride returned quickly during seven weeks of workouts, but he still must deal with years of inactivity, a back that was balky even when he was much younger and bigger, stronger defensemen who don't care who he once was.
He also must deal with a sport that, despite his own remarks to the contrary, still has far too much clutching and grabbing to please fans more interested in offense, offense, offense.
''I have a lot of confidence to come back and play at a high level,'' said Lemieux, the only NHL player with 500 or more goals to average more than two points per game. ''I'm going to have to be patient, but I intend to get back to the top of my game.''
But just how high a level can he achieve? Can a player away from the game so long, even one as skilled as Lemieux, dare hope to dominate like he once did? Apparently, many want to know.
The Penguins expect to sell out all four games of a homestand that conveniently begins Wednesday, and they have more media credential requests for the comeback game -- about 200 -- than they usually do for an early-round playoff game.
Still, Lemieux warns he won't come back ''scoring 4-5 points a night'' and even his own teammates are trying not to get too worked up, lest they be disappointed if he is merely Lemieux the Good, not Lemieux the Great.
''It's going to be tough for him,'' Alexei Kovalev said. ''It will take some time for him to come back. The skill will be there, but the energy? It's tough to bring it back. It's going to take 3-4-5 games to get in game shape.
''Practice is one thing. He is definitely in good shape right now. But it's different when you practice and when you're playing.''
Lemieux is coming back partly because he considers the Penguins a Stanley Cup contender, but they aren't playing like it. They were 0-3-3 in the six games going into Tuesday's game and have seemed distracted and unfocused lately, almost as if they can't wait for Lemieux to return.
They didn't resemble a cup contender Saturday, losing 8-2 to the Dallas Stars in their fifth consecutive home loss. They last had such a long home losing streak in January 1984, several months before they drafted then 18-year-old Lemieux.
''I think anyone who comes back from such a period of not playing hockey, you need help from your teammates,'' said four-time NHL scoring champion Jaromir Jagr, who has slumped much of the season. ''The way we're playing right now, I don't know if we can help him much. He's going to be on his own.''
Of course, Lemieux is accustomed to that, having previously transformed what was the NHL's worst team in the 1980s into a two-time Stanley Cup champion in the 1990s.
''I think I'm very, very close, and I'm very excited about the future,'' Lemieux said.
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