Not quite Super any longer, Mario Lemieux retires _ for the last time

Updated: January 25, 2006, 3:32 AM ET
Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- Mario Lemieux made a career out of comebacks -- from cancer and a heart problem, agonizing back pain, a rare bone infection, a self-imposed one-season layoff and, five years ago, from the boredom of retirement.

Finally, he found something that prevented him from returning to the Pittsburgh Penguins yet one more time: A heart that still loves to play the game, but is not physically well enough to do so.

Lemieux, arguably the most talented player in NHL history if not the most accomplished or highest-scoring, retired Tuesday for the second time from a sport he played as well as any. Even if his own body wouldn't let him play nearly as much or as well as he wanted.

His Hall of Fame talent eroded by an irregular heartbeat that doctors have been unable to fully control and may need corrective surgery, Lemieux said Tuesday it is time to join an ever-growing list of stars who have retired this season: Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Scott Stevens, Ziggy Palffy and Al MacInnis.

"I have two main reasons for retiring," Lemieux said, occasionally wiping tears from his eyes as his family and numerous Penguins players did likewise in a packed interview room. "The first is I can no longer play at a level I was accustomed to in the past. That has been very, very frustrating to me throughout this past year.

"The second one is realizing my health, along with my family, is the most important thing in the world."

The 40-year-old Penguins owner-player learned in early December he has atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can cause his pulse to flutter wildly and is being treated with medication. He returned Dec. 16 against Buffalo, but the problem flared up again in the third period and he hasn't played since.

Lemieux, the NHL's seventh-leading career scorer with 1,723 points, practiced the last several weeks with the intent of playing again. But several repeat episodes of racing heartbeats convinced him it's time to leave at a time when new stars such as Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are transforming the NHL into a faster, younger man's game.

"If I could play this game at a decent level, I'd come back and play," said Lemieux, whose latest bout with a fast pulse came only Monday night. "This is really a new NHL and it's built on speed and young guys."

Still, Lemieux was hardly an embarrassment on the ice this season -- to the contrary.

He had seven goals and 15 assists in 26 games, a nearly point-per-game pace that would have been among the best in the league in 2003-04. He also had six multiple-point games, including a five-point game Oct. 27 against Atlanta.

But that wasn't good enough for Lemieux, who lifted what was one of pro sports' worst franchises in the mid-1980s to Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992 and won six scoring titles and three MVP awards.

Lemieux also was the first major pro sports star to buy the team for which he played, assembling a group that bought the team in federal bankruptcy court in 1999.

He insisted the stress he's under as an owner -- the franchise is up for sale during a terrible season and may relocate without a new arena -- did not affect his decision to retire as a player.

"It's been a big part of this year," Lemieux said of his heart condition. "Even to this day, I am not feeling 100 percent."

Lemieux's final farewell as a player follows long after a one-year layoff in 1994-95, the season after he was successfully treated for cancer of the lymph nodes, and a 44-month retirement from April 1997 to December 2000.

Then, a year after he and his investors purchased the team in federal bankruptcy court partly to protect the millions of dollars owed him by the franchise, Lemieux stunned the NHL by coming out of retirement. He played exceptionally well after returning at age 35, getting 35 goals and 76 points in 43 games and leading the Penguins to the Eastern Conference final in their last playoff appearance.

However, injuries caught up to him again, and he was limited to 24 games in 2001-02 by a hip injury -- though he did captain Canada to an Olympic gold medal -- and 10 games in 2003-04 by another hip problem.

When he returned last fall following the labor standoff that shut down the 2004-05 season, the 13-time All-Star game choice felt a little slow and out of step for the first time in his career.

"I'm sorry I didn't feel any better or play any better, but that's what happens at the end of careers," he said.

Lemieux's retirement is certain to rekindle this decades-old debate: Was Wayne Gretzky or Lemieux better?

Lemieux had fewer goals than Gretzky (690 to 894) and fewer assists (1,033 to 1,963) but played nearly 600 fewer games than The Great One. Gretzky's 1.92 points per game pace is slightly better than Lemieux's 1.88, but Lemieux played for years with less talent around him than Gretzky enjoyed.

Also, severe back pain that routinely left Lemieux unable to lace up his skates meant he only twice came close to playing a full season past the age of 23.

"How many more points would he have had if he stayed reasonably healthy?" Hall of Fame forward Bryan Trottier said. "Four hundred? Five hundred? Six hundred? We'll never know. No disrespect to Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Mark Messier, Bobby Orr, Gilbert Perreault ... but Mario did things nobody else could ever do."

At least No. 66 has someone to pass the mantle to -- Crosby, the Penguins' rookie superstar in waiting and the team's leading scorer.

"It's just tough to see him leave," Crosby said of the man who turned comebacks into an art form. "He's had such an impact on the game. He's really got a passion for the game. I don't think anyone ever should have to deal with so much."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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