Hockey Central

Up Close and Personal:
Mario Lemieux

With little fanfare and less regret, Mario Lemieux made it official last Saturday at the Dapper Dan charity dinner at the Pittsburgh Hilton. This would be his final season. He was kissing it all goodbye: the clutching and grabbing, the pain, the aggravation, the glory and the scoring titles. In a few weeks (maybe sooner, depending on how quickly the Penguins vanish from the playoffs), the most potent goal-scorer in NHL history will hang up his skates and retire. No farewell tour. No string of "Thanks for the Memories, Mario" events. He is going gently into that good night, ever the unreachable star. And if the reclusive 31-year-old left the impression that he was counting the days-he has referred to this season as "the light at the end of the tunnel"-well, that could be because he was.

For someone who has made a career of making impossible plays look easy, the one trick he could never pull off was to savor being Mario Lemieux. Not outwardly, anyway. It always seemed such a burden, as if he had made some sort of Faustian pact as a youngster: The more talent you are given, the less joy you will extract from the game.

As an 18-year-old phenom from the suburbs of Montreal, charged with saving the then woeful Pittsburgh franchise, Lemieux broke with tradition by refusing to pose in a Penguins jersey the day he was drafted because he hadn't yet been signed. Public relations were never more than an afterthought for him. "Mario's almost a loner," says former Pittsburgh general manager and coach Eddie Johnston, who made Lemieux the first pick overall in 1984. "He was a shy kid and might have felt awkward at first because he didn't speak much English. And even though he picked the language right up, that might have stayed with him. He passed on all the interviews and endorsements."

The NHL was Wayne Gretzky's league when Lemieux broke in, and Lemieux has never fully escaped Gretzky's shadow. It is nearly impossible to assess the accomplishments of one player without referring to the other. They are the two greatest centers in the history of the league, and no one else comes close. "I tried to gauge my career against his," Lemieux says, denying that others' constant comparisons of him with Gretzky detracted from his enjoyment of the game. "It helped me to elevate my game to a level he'd reached. It was great for both of us."

Gretzky has averaged 2.03 points per game over his 18-year career; Lemieux, 2.01. No other player with a minimum of 500 points has averaged as many as 1.5 points per game. Gretzky has won nine MVP awards; Lemieux, three. Lemieux might have won one more, in 1988-89, if he hadn't been so aloof with the press, which votes on the award. Gretzky has won 10 scoring titles; Lemieux, if he hangs on to his lead this season, will finish with six. Gretzky has hoisted the Stanley Cup four times; Lemieux, twice.

The one area in which the 6'4", 226-pound Lemieux is demonstrably superior is scoring goals. His average of .826 goals per game-612 goals in 741 games at week's end-is by far the best in NHL history. (Gretzky's average is .647.) But injuries and illness have kept Lemieux from challenging Gretzky's domination of the record book. Lemieux has never played every game in a season, and he has sat out 243 regular-season games in the '90s. His career might be symbolized best by the 1989-90 season, in which he fashioned a 46-game point-scoring streak, five short of Gretzky's record. But Lemieux's run ended when, debilitated by back pain, he removed himself after one period of a game against the New York Rangers.

That back would torment Lemieux for years. Teammates remember that he couldn't bend over. The only way he could undress was by letting his pants fall down around his ankles so he could step out of them. He needed to use a footrest to tie on his skates. Some nights he couldn't straighten up afterward, and his teammates would just leave him in the locker room. The back was operated on in July 1990 and again in July 1993, but Lemieux was seldom free of pain. He missed 54 games one year, 62 another. "It takes a toll on you mentally to play in pain so often," says Pittsburgh defenseman Craig Muni, who was a teammate of Gretzky's when both were with the Edmonton Oilers. "Wayne never had to overcome a major injury."

"Nobody's been through what Mario has," says Johnston.

Even the championship years came with an emotional price. Lemieux won his first Stanley Cup in June 1991 and was voted the MVP of the playoffs, finally silencing critics who had called him a one-dimensional, undisciplined talent. But a pall was cast over the entire year when, five months later, Bob Johnson, the popular coach of the Penguins, died of brain cancer.

A second Cup followed in 1992, with Scotty Bowman as interim coach, but Lemieux had already started talking about retiring. In January of that year he called the NHL a "garage league" and was fined $1,000. He also said, "The advantage is to the marginal players now. They can hook and grab, and the good players can't do what they're supposed to do." It is a theme he has returned too often.

The fates kept heaving obstacles in his path. In January 1993, in the midst of his most dominating season-he had 160 points and 69 goals in 60 games and led the NHL with a +55 rating-he was found to have Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer that had taken the life of one of his cousins. Fortunately Lemieux was in the early stages of the illness. He missed six weeks of the season while undergoing radiation therapy and returned in time to win a fourth scoring title. But his back continued to plague him, and his strength and stamina suffered from the radiation treatments. In the second round of the '93 playoffs Pittsburgh's fledgling dynasty collapsed when the team was upset by the New York Islanders.

Lemieux was only 29 when he took the 1994-95 season off to try to regain his health, working with massage therapist Tom Plasko. "He'd never lifted weights before," says Plasko. "His upper body was very weak compared to his lower body, and we tried to balance it. We also did a lot on the treadmill, a lot on the stationary bike. Leg curls. It was grueling, 21/2 hours every morning-the hardest thing I've ever seen anyone do."

When Lemieux returned for the 1995-96 season, he was relatively pain-free for the first time in six years. The league was trying to crack down on obstruction fouls, and referees had been directed to call games tightly. Lemieux thrived under the new standards, getting 161 points in 70 games-31 of his 69 goals came on the power play-to easily win a fifth scoring title and his third MVP award. In the playoffs, however, the referees put away their whistles. The clutching and grabbing that Lemieux loathed returned with a vengeance, and the Penguins were upset in the conference finals by the close-checking Florida Panthers.

"I was very close to retiring after last season," Lemieux says. It wasn't just the officiating. He had gotten another scare in March 1996 when his son, Austin, was born three months prematurely. Austin didn't come home from the hospital until June. Mario and his wife, Nathalie, also have two daughters (Lauren, 3, and Stephanie, 2), and Mario wanted to spend more time with them. He was financially secure-in 1992 he had signed a seven-year, $42 million contract, the largest in hockey history-and he had learned that the one thing he couldn't count on was his and his family members' health.

"He loves the game, but he has other loves in his life too," says Pittsburgh coach and general manager Craig Patrick. "He's probably the healthiest I've seen him in the seven years I've been here. But when Mario was unhealthy, he realized what was important in life. He's been severely tested on a number of fronts, and he doesn't want to find himself saying, 'I wish I'd spent more time with my family.'"

Over the summer Lemieux talked to Penguins owner Howard Baldwin, who persuaded him to return for one more year to try to win a third Stanley Cup. Baldwin and Lemieux were then invited to New York to talk to Brian Burke, the NHL director of operations, and commissioner Gary Bettman about Lemieux's concerns over league officiating. "I talked about all the clutching and grabbing, how it was taking away from the great players in the league," Lemieux says. "It's to the point where it's not hockey anymore. It's like football on skates. The best teams win in basketball because the players can run up the court without carrying two guys on their backs. Not so in hockey. That's why there are so many teams with mediocre records. [Opposing players] grab you whether you have the puck or not. It's the worst it's been since I've been in the league. [Burke and Bettman] agreed. They always agree when you're there. It's very, very aggravating. You keep getting promises, and they aren't kept."

Burke says that no promises were made at the New York meeting and that Lemieux was told it was impossible to design a standard of officiating for one player. "This league should not allow a handful of players to dictate the officiating," Burke says, referring to scorers such as Lemieux, Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings and Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche, who have been crying foul all season about increased interference. "The referees have officially been instructed to call obstruction fouls but not to call marginal penalties on [players impeding] the puck carrier. It is still respected in the league to have to fight through a check, and I hope it always will be. We think the referees have done a good job."

It is having to fight through a hook or a hold-not a check-that has Lemieux and others seeing red. "Putting the stick on you in the neutral zone is not part of a contact game," says Johnston. "That's not hitting. We passed Sakic in the airport this season, and his comment was, 'How do you like tackle football?'"

With fewer penalties being called, scoring is down leaguewide this season, and shutouts are up. The number of power-play goals has dropped 26% since last season, from 1.81 per game to 1.34. "Goaltenders are certainly better than in the past," Lemieux says. "The coaching is better too. Now even bad teams have [defensive] systems. If the refereeing was different, the systems would still work, but not as well. In basketball, teams that don't have talent don't win. Hockey is different. The NHL allows lesser players to get away with things. It's a good time for me to get away, because if the league expands again, the problem will just get worse. There will be more and more unskilled players."

And one less magically skilled player. When Lemieux is asked if he would reconsider retirement if the NHL assured him that next season the refs would enforce the rules as written, he shakes his head and smiles ruefully. "They've fooled me once," he says. "They're not going to fool me twice."

Not since Jim Brown retired at 29 in 1965 after winning his eighth NFL rushing title has a professional athlete left his sport by choice while still at the top-and not returned. Lemieux may not be as dominant as he once was, but he's still one of the few NHL stars worth the price of admission.

His decision to leave was reinforced on March 2, when the Penguins, who were in a 1-10 slump, fired Johnston, Lemieux's good friend. "Coaches who don't win don't last long," Lemieux says. "That's the nature of the game. But the big factor is, I want to be the best by a long shot, and I haven't been that the last couple of years. I can't change speeds the way I used to. I can't challenge a player one-on-one. It's frustrating. I felt I was playing about as well as ever for a couple of months this year, but then I hurt my back again around the All-Star break. I can't ride the bike as a result, and I've lost strength in my legs. It's affected my stamina. I don't want to struggle to survive out there, getting 15 to 20 goals a year. I'll miss the guys. What I won't miss is the way the game's being played."

Few people who know him think Lemieux will get bored with retirement and return to the NHL after a year or two. He has not decided whether he will play in the 1998 Olympics. He has been criticized in Canada for not participating in international competitions, and Team Canada's general manager, Bob Clarke, has said he would welcome Lemieux even if he wasn't playing in the NHL. "We'll see how I feel," says Lemieux. "I won't have to make up my mind on that until December."

A scratch golfer, Lemieux plans to play four or five celebrity tournaments this summer, assuming his back doesn't act up again. "He has a normal back now," says Plasko. "He still gets some stiffness, like everyone else in the NHL, but he should be able to live a normal life."

Mario and Nathalie are expecting their fourth child in August. "Four kids will give me plenty to keep me busy," Mario says, laughing. "I want to see them grow up. I'm looking forward to not having pressure on me. Even in the summer, in the back of my mind I was always thinking about work. I've been playing hockey since I was three or four years old, so yes, it's a difficult thing to let go of. But I'm looking forward to totally relaxing for the first time."

He looks and sounds like a man preparing to climb out from under a great weight. To have been born with that name-Lemieux, "the best" - and then to have been blessed with the skills to match it ... that must have been harder than any of us knew.