There have been many happy returns in 1995, The Year of the
Comeback. One by one they have solved their physical, emotional
and legal problems, and Michael Jordan, Monica Seles, Mike Tyson
and Diego Maradona all have marched back into the arenas where
they once towered over opponents and dwarfed their sports. From
the rusty Jordan lifting a flawed Chicago Bull team to the NBA
semifinals to Seles giggling and grunting her way to a U.S. Open
final to Tyson stamping his label on a tomato can named Peter
McNeeley to Maradona flashing his old skills, their stories have
been sunny if not quite storybook.
The comeback tale of Mario Lemieux, who once owned hockey the
way Tyson ruled the heavyweights, may or may not have a happy
ending, but it certainly had a page-turning Chapter 1. After 18
months away from hockey to deal with a series of medical crises
that included Hodgkin's disease, two operations on his
chronically sore back, a rare bone infection and a case of
anemia, Lemieux has returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins feeling
like the $4.5 million that the Penguins are paying him. Lemieux
said he was not coming back to be an average player--Would
Michael want to be a sixth man? Would Maradona play for a club
team?--and on opening night in Pittsburgh last Saturday, he was
as good as his word. Stationed at his familiar spot along the
left wing boards on the Penguin power play, the four-time
scoring champion and two-time MVP assisted on four goals in an
8-3 drubbing of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"Mario is Mario," Toronto coach Pat Burns said after the game.
Mario demurred. He said that he was off his game, that he had a
little rink rust, that his vision of the play is still not
20-20. "In a couple more games, I'll be more relaxed," Lemieux
said. "I've been nervous for a couple of days. I wasn't patient
enough to wait on some shots. I rushed a few." Lemieux had six
shots--not counting a goal that was disallowed by the referee--in
addition to the four points that instantly propelled him to the
top of the league's scoring chart. Maybe Lemieux was a stride
slower and his opening-night artistry did not much surpass
paint-by-numbers, but that didn't matter on the score sheet.
Lemieux has skated this trail before. This was the third time he
has come back after missing at least 38 games in a season and
the seventh time he has returned from injuries after being out
at least 10 games. In 1990-91 he played in only 26 games because
of a herniated disk; his back ailment also kept him out of all
but 22 games in '93-94. He has been an ethereal presence as much
as a player. Mario's comebacks are nothing new in Pittsburgh,
though this one was more significant because many observers had
doubts--Lemieux included--that he would ever return.
Although his comeback did not involve a prison term, a stabbing,
drug rehabilitation or minor league baseball, it did involve
golf. Lemieux is a fervent low handicapper, and he spent part of
his sabbatical with metal woods instead of Sherwoods in his
hands, which raised inevitable questions about his dedication to
hockey. For a definitive answer about how much this comeback
means to him, however, you don't have to look beyond his pecs.
The 30-year-old Lemieux has what look suspiciously like muscles
peeking from his torso after five months of workouts with
personal trainer Tom Plasko, who has had him stretching, riding
a stationary bike, running on a treadmill and even lifting
weights. The new conditioning program is a slight variation of
the old one, as teammate Ron Francis related to the Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette last week about playing golf with Lemieux in the
summer of 1991: "I said, 'Mario, do you ever work out in the
summer?' He said, 'Yeah.' I was actually surprised. I said, 'You
do? What do you do?' He said, 'Starting August 1, I don't order
french fries with my club sandwich.'"
This season Pittsburgh is betting the franchise on the
Franchise. Penguin general manager Craig Patrick traded talented
but high-priced veterans such as Larry Murphy, Luc Robitaille,
Ulf Samuelsson and Kevin Stevens in an effort to inject youth
and speed into the lineup and to make room in the budget for
Lemieux's salary and the $11.3 million lump sum the Penguins are
scheduled to pay him next September. The Penguins have run a
major advertising campaign around him: THE THREE MOST FEARED
WORDS IN HOCKEY--MARIO IS BACK, which, after the saga of Mario's
back, has a nice ring to it.
Lemieux didn't miss a preseason practice this year and plans to
play 60 to 70 matches, skipping the second of back-to-back games
and passing on some West Coast trips. If history--or the Penguin
opener--is any indication, 60 games will be plenty. Lemieux won
the scoring title with 160 points in 60 games in 1992-93, his
last relatively healthy season, and he will now be aided by the
stricter enforcement of the rules against obstruction, which is
something that Lemieux had lobbied for in the past. With the
anticipated glut of power plays, more open ice and the Penguins'
ability to gun it on offense, a healthy Lemieux could put up
some Sega numbers and turn wingers Tomas Sandstrom and Bryan
Smolinski into 45-goal scorers. "If you can't skate these days,
you can't play," Lemieux says. "We've got a lot more speed than
we've had in the past."
There was no pay-per-view party in Atlantic City or Las Vegas
like the ones thrown for Seles and Tyson, none of the
major-network fawning that Jordan received, but ESPN and Hockey
Night in Canada and 17,181 at the Igloo knew a proper comeback
when they saw it. In pregame festivities, Lemieux was the last
player introduced, and the home crowd went ballistic. Fireworks
exploded from the scoreboard. Then for the next 2 1/2 hours,
Lemieux and the Penguins made their own fireworks.
He feels good. He looks good. The four best words in hockey are,
Mario is still Mario.
COLOR PHOTO: GENE J. PUSKAR/AP Lemieux reverted to form in his first game back, assisting on four goals in an 8-3 rout of Toronto. [Mario Lemieux]
COLOR PHOTO: ERIC MILLER/REUTER After his long layoff Lemieux seemed ubiquitous as fans welcomed him back to the ice. [Fans wearing Mario Lemieux jerseys]