THE EARLY-AFTERNOON temperature in the Phoenix suburbs is 68° on the first Friday of December; a gentle breeze out of the east-northeast caresses the Valley of the Sun. This weather is reported only because Claude Lemieux is not at home to enjoy it. He is at the back of a bus that's rolling through the gathering gloom in a Massachusetts locale where winter's fingertips have already shaken the dead leaves off the trees. Rather than taking his two children to school, doing some work at his commercial real estate company and then slipping out for a round of golf, the 43-year-old Lemieux is playing hockey for a team in a city he initially mispronounced (Worcester, which he called WAR-ches-ter instead of WOO-ster), with players whose names he still doesn't know and in a minor league in which he last appeared 22 years ago—all for the chance to resume an NHL career that ended in George W. Bush's first term.
Beginning in the 1983--84 season Lemieux earned some $18 million over 19 NHL seasons with five teams. Neither the prorated $50,000 salary he's making as a member of the Worcester Sharks—the average American Hockey League contract—nor the $18 dinner allowance he receives on road trips is going to make or break him. "Do the math," he snorts, shoving his meal money into a track-suit pocket before the 90-minute ride into southern New Hampshire to play the Manchester Monarchs. "This isn't about money. It's costing me money to play here with the way I live." Even if he makes it back to the NHL, Lemieux, as a fourth-line right wing, is hardly likely to command a seven-figure salary.
No, this comeback doesn't seem to be about seven figures or any other number such as a fifth Stanley Cup or a 400th regular-season NHL goal (He's 21 short.) This is about a hockey rush that has everything to do with Lemieux again bulling his way to the net.
"The past five years I've been home 90 percent of the time," Lemieux says. "I've spent a lot of quality time with my wife and kids. They support what I'm doing, want it as bad as I do, but this is about being selfish again. I didn't wake up one day and decide I wanted to play again. I woke up every day wanting it. If I don't do this, well, it's tough to explain, but there's nothing I've done so far after the NHL"—real estate, running an ECHL team in Phoenix—"that comes within one percent of this."
He says he contacted seven or eight teams, including the San Jose Sharks, whose G.M., Doug Wilson, first met Lemieux through Team Canada in the late 1980s. Wilson was intrigued. The organization underwrote Lemieux's trip to play a few games for the China Sharks in the Asian hockey league—a new wrinkle for an old-timer—and then hooked him up at San Jose's minor league affiliate in Worcester. "He added depth," says Worcester G.M. Wayne Thomas, who's also San Jose's assistant G.M. "We thought with his leadership, he could help us win at the minor league level." Any NHL team can offer him a contract, although San Jose seems to have the inside track. ("With the Sharks," one Western Conference executive says of the team that had the NHL's best record through Sunday, "he could easily slip onto the fourth line.") As Lemieux says, "This is a stepping-stone."
He didn't invent this comeback business. If the great ones can do it—Ali, MJ, Sugar Ray (Robinson and Leonard), Mr. Hockey, Mario, Sinatra—the Grate One can try. If it worked for the Chairman of the Board, why not for the Chairman of the Boarding? That's how you best remember Lemieux, isn't it? Sure, the erstwhile most hated man in hockey played significant roles on four Stanley Cup teams and won the 1995 Conn Smythe Trophy with the Devils. But perhaps the most indelible impression Lemieux left was on the face of Detroit's Kris Draper when, as a member of the Avalanche, he rammed the Red Wings forward from behind and into the boards during a 1996 playoff game, the flash point of the overcaffeinated Colorado-Detroit rivalry.
Although he didn't play his first game for Worcester until late November, Lemieux says he's ready to go to the NHL. Tomorrow. Yesterday would have been better. That was the topic of an animated conversation two nights earlier on a face-off when he stood next to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's Chris Minard, who was four years old when Lemieux won his first Cup, with Montreal in 1986. "I asked if he's planning to get back to the NHL or just coming back to play," Minard, who's been called up by the Penguins, said later. "He said, 'I want to get back to the NHL.' I said, 'Well, you certainly don't look out of place here.' It's incredible that he's playing at this pace with all these kids running around. He looks good."
Lemieux looks spectacular. He is a taut 215 pounds. The hair is graying, but the jaw remains impossibly square and the lupine eyes still burn. Almost nothing has changed, including his choppy, upright skating stride. In many ways he looks just as he did when he left the NHL in 2003.
Seemingly the only thing holding back Lemieux is his stick. After struggling to find one of the new high-tech jobs with the ideal kick point for his shot, he may have stumbled upon it: A Reebok with a stiff, 100 flex shaft and a blade pattern known as Sakic Legal.
When you tilt at windmills, your lance had better be just right.
IN THE private utopia of the player long known as Pepe Lemieux, he is hoisting the 2009 Stanley Cup, as the crowd in San Jose's sold-out Shark Tank goes ballistic. California dreaming? San Jose had raced to a 24-3-2 record at week's end, so its first Cup is certainly a possibility. As for Lemieux's being part of it, well, if you really need a five-minute player in the Cup final, whom would you prefer on your fourth line: one-dimensional fighter Jody Shelley or a useful agitator like Lemieux?
Lemieux's game is hardly dynamic. Even in his heyday, he rarely beat defenders one-on-one and never went coast-to-coast, but he was so well regarded as a fount of springtime hockey wisdom that he might as well have been called Bobby Oracle. He had some fabulous playoffs in the first half of his career, including 10 goals in 20 games as a Canadiens rookie, and his Smythe-winning 13 goals and 16 points for New Jersey nine years later. At the point in the hockey calendar when scoring is at a premium, Lemieux actually had a superior points-per-game average: .678 in the playoffs compared with .656 in the regular season. This, Lemieux says, is "my intangible." But his total output over his final three NHL seasons—34 regular-season goals; one point in 12 playoff games in first-round losses for Phoenix and then Dallas—suggests his release on the eve of the 2003--04 season was less an abrupt dismissal by Stars G.M. Doug Armstrong ("I went for coffee, and [Armstrong] said it's over," Lemieux recalls) than the end of a long goodbye.
Now Lemieux is trying to return to an altered NHL landscape, a clutch-and-grab-free world that has increased the premium on speed. As Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau says, "The game has changed since he last played. It's go-go-go. You can't slow down the game anymore to suit your style. You have to be able to skate. That was his problem when he quit: skating."
Lemieux bristles at the notion. He might be the fastest forward among these minor league Sharks, but his conspicuous strengths are driving to the net and, more important, staying there to trade some jostling for a scoring chance.
"If I got put on a fourth line up there tomorrow, playing eight, 10 minutes a game, I would be physical, I would have an impact," he says. "Would I be effective on the forecheck, the backcheck, winning puck battles? No doubt.... This league is no joke, not like the AHL I played in in 1986. And look at me—I'm not getting banged around; I'm not getting knocked on my ass. I have the puck on my tape more than most forwards on my team." Through Sunday he had five points in 10 games, including a game-winning goal.
Although hotel life in the AHL and a Skype relationship with wife Deborah, 12-year-old Brendan and 11-year-old Claudia are imperfect compromises, Lemieux refuses to attach a drop-dead date to a dream. Can't NHL scouts see what he sees? The neck and groin woes that plagued him late in his career have healed. His hockey IQ hasn't plummeted. "When everybody heard he was coming back, we thought he was crazy," says Carbonneau, a teammate on the champion 1986 Canadiens. "We still think he's crazy. But that's the best part of our world now: Nothing's impossible."
Says Lemieux, "I look forward to being on the ice at the Bell Centre in Montreal in February, and when I skate by their bench, I'll wink at my buddy Carbo."
ON HIS first shift in Manchester, an old Lemieux looks like the old Lemieux. He throws two checks, forces a turnover. Really, for Lemieux and San Jose, this is a win-win situation: He indulges his inner Quixote, and San Jose gets a risk-free audition. The only loss on this wintry night is 3--2 to the Monarchs. If Lemieux is "a little sluggish," in the words of an NHL team executive in attendance, "three or four quick strides, then he'd coast," he is also effective. He has a half-dozen hits, two shots on goal, finishes +1 and draws a tripping penalty that, like in the bad old days, he embellishes.
Lemieux has never worried that critics called him a diver, a cheap-shot artist, a turtle (initially he didn't fight Detroit's Darren McCarty, who rushed to Draper's defense in 1996) or a cannibal (he bit Calgary forward Jim Peplinski's finger in a playoff game). At dinner he looks across the table, fixes his deep blue stare and says, "I hope I get to piss people off [in the NHL] again. You piss them off by hitting a guy when it's time to hit, by winning the battle, by taking the puck away and going down the other end and scoring. That'll piss anybody off."
"I didn't wake up one day and decide I wanted to play again," Lemieux says. "I WOKE UP EVERY DAY WANTING IT."
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Photograph by Lou Capozzola
SQUARE ONE Lemieux left the warmth of his home near Phoenix for the locker rooms and provincial rinks (inset) of the Northeast.
Photograph by Lou Capozzola
[See caption above]
Photograph by Lou Capozzola
STICK FIGURES Lemieux had five points in his first 10 AHL games while experimenting with new shafts and blades.
Photograph by Lou Capozzola
SPRING CLEANUP Lemieux was an MVP and a champ as a Devil in 1995.