With Mr. Lemieux's return, we're eating our words once again

January, 19, 2009
Imagine Rob Blake's surprise Monday when he walked into the dressing room in San Jose and saw none other than Claude Lemieux.

Blake had not yet heard his team had called up the veteran winger, so that's how he found out.

"It was nice to run into him," Blake told ESPN.com. "It makes J.R. and I a little younger on our team."

Blake and Jeremy Roenick are both 39 years old, puppies compared to the 43-year-old Lemieux, who also happens to be two and half years older than Sharks coach Todd McLellan.

"But he looks in great shape," Blake said of Lemieux.

Before we continue, crow must be eaten. We promised to run through the press box naked at the Stanley Cup finals if Claude Lemieux's NHL comeback bid came to fruition. Ahem, media colleagues, you've been forewarned. Please make sure to have eaten dinner before we make good on our promise next June.

"That's why we called him up," Sharks GM Doug Wilson, joking of course, told us Monday.

We weren't the only ones to make fun of this comeback bid. The laughter was universal around the hockey world. And Lemieux took notice.

"I got into this with my eyes wide open, knowing that most folks out there would think that I was out of my mind to attempt to do something like this," Lemieux told a bunch of us media folk on a conference call Monday. "But it's OK. I've had no problem taking criticism along the way. It motivated me even more. It's been a fun road."

One guy who wasn't surprised Lemieux made it all the way back was Lou Lamoriello. The two spoke on the phone recently when Lemieux called and wanted to wish Brendan Shanahan good luck after joining the Devils. The New Jersey GM could tell Lemieux was serious about his bid.

"I'm happy for Claude," Lamoriello said. "He was here for two Cups. If anyone could have done it, it was Claude. He worked hard at it. He made a commitment and he paid the price this year. For him to be back, it really isn't a surprise."

Give the guy credit. The Sharks made him earn Monday's promotion. He played in China in the fall and then rode buses in the AHL with Worcester, where he put up 11 points (3-8), 24 penalty minutes and a plus-2 rating in 23 games.

"He's not been given anything by us," Wilson said. "If anything, we've given him opportunities to say, 'I don't want to do this because it's too hard' -- having gone to China and then numerous times he played three games in four nights in the American Hockey League. But his passion for the game has pushed him through."

Wilson sneaked into a Worcester practice recently without telling anyone he'd be there. What he saw was a player in Lemieux who worked his tail off in practice. "He was first on and last off," Wilson said.

Wilson admitted that, three months ago, he honestly didn't think this day would ever come. But Lemieux proved many of us wrong, including the Sharks' GM.

"He's here because he deserves to be here. It's that simple," Wilson said.

"I had no doubt I could do this," Lemieux said. "I'm very stubborn, and the more I heard or was told this was impossible and could not be accomplished, the more I wanted it."

But what, exactly, does he bring back to the NHL five years removed from his last game in the big show?

"I've always brought to a team a physical presence and been someone that's been a pain in the rear to play against, and that's what I have to bring to this team," Lemieux said.

Like Roenick, he'll be a third- or fourth-line grinder who brings a wealth of experience to the table. But there's also a theme here that Wilson began last summer. Lemieux brings four Stanley Cup rings with him to San Jose. Wilson also added some Cup rings in Blake, McLellan and Dan Boyle.

"You go through so many different things during the course of a playoff run, lots of ups and downs," Blake said of adding more Cup experience. "When you can have more calming voices in the room, I think it definitely goes a long way."

There were many Monday who were asking why, but really, we say, why not? His two-way contract pays him $500,000 at the NHL level and $100,000 in the minors -- peanuts. With just over half the season gone, he'll earn less than $250,000 for the rest of the season if he stays up. If he can't hack it, the Sharks can send him back down with no questions asked.

"Why wouldn't you bring a player like this in when you're trying to get to where we are trying to get to?," Wilson said.

All we need now is a Western Conference final against Detroit. Just like old times, eh Claude?

Blake update
We'd be remiss if we didn't ask Rob Blake how he was doing, since we had him on the phone Monday. It just so happens he's doing much better after having wiring removed earlier in the day from his broken jaw.

"The last couple of days were a little tough, but I'm better now," Blake said. "I should be back right after the [All-Star] break with the full shield."

Flyers' decisions
The Philadelphia Flyers have some roster decisions to make this week if forward Daniel Briere returns to the lineup.

That's the first bridge they have to cross. Will Briere play Wednesday night after missing 36 of his team's 45 games this season with a groin injury?

"We're being careful, just because we don't want him to come back and reinjure it again," Flyers GM Paul Holmgren told ESPN.com on Monday. "He's got to see a doctor again before we make that call. I'd say it's 50-50 for Wednesday."

Once Briere does return, Holmgren will need to make a move or two to clear up the necessary cap space. The Flyers are at the max right now.

"We'll have to do something, but we don't have to do anything drastic," Holmgren said. One move that's been speculated is returning 18-year-old defenseman Luca Sbisa ($875,000 salary) back to junior hockey.

"It might be an option, yes," Holmgren said.

That's a tough call. Sbisa has been a healthy scratch at times over the past month. If you're Holmgren, the question you have to ask yourself is whether Sbisa would be better off playing a ton of minutes in the Western Hockey League or staying in the top league in the world and learning by osmosis.

In our humble view, if coach John Stevens doesn't view him as being good enough at this stage to crack his top six, then junior hockey is a better place for his development.

We'll see what Holmgren does. He can also send a couple of players to the AHL instead.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer




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