<
>

Fans and Opponents See One Claude Lemieux. Family and Teammates See Another

Hell swing his stick at you, or serenade his wife. Hell put his rock-hard elbow into the side of your face, then turn soft as oatmeal a few hours later in the presence of his daughter. To those who dont know him (and a few who do), hes the most hated player in the NHL. But despite three Stanley Cup victories, hell tell you his warmest memories are of the hours he spent as a child at the side of his truck-driving father, rolling through the small, working-class towns of Quebec. From the outside looking in, Claude Lemieux, once again a New Jersey Devil, is a skating contradiction. Hockey fans know that he will do anythinganythingto win a hockey game: slash your ankle, run your goalie, drive you into the boards. And yet, there he was, voice trembling with nerves, struggling to stay on key, as he sang, Have I Told You Lately ... ? to his new wife on a Caribbean beach. This is the same guy who rearranged the face of Kris Draper in a 1996 playoff game? In my travels, Ive gotten to know a lot of guys in the league, Lemieux says. I know a lot of them are just husbands and fathers like me. That makes it tougher and tougher to have to go out there and beat the crap out of them. But I know thats what I have to do.

Claude Lemieux is so good at being bad he can elbow a player on the ice and tick off an executive in a luxury box. Thats what happened in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. Play stopped and a scrum developed after Lemieux put his elbow into the face of Philadelphias Eric Desjardins. After the game, backup goalie John Vanbiesbrouck was incredulous. He asked Ed Snider, the small, gray-haired chairman of the Flyers, Did you see that elbow?

Yeah, said Snider. He put it in Erics face. Started the whole thing. Then he skates away and doesnt even get a penalty.

What else is new? said Desjardins, seething.

What was most interesting about that postgame exchange was that the Flyers had won the game. And still they couldnt get Lemieux out of their minds. Good, Lemieux said later, when told of the Flyers preoccupation with his antics. I want to be their worst nightmare.

Heres the rub: There isnt a player who doesnt have at least a grudging admiration for Lemieuxs will to win. There isnt a general manager who wouldnt trade for this nightmare. There isnt an owner who wouldnt gladly sign Lemieuxs paycheck because he would be paying a winnerthe NHLs version of Mr. October, Reggie Jackson. (Another nightmare, by the way.)

Lemieux has 345 career goals, an additional 80 in the playoffs. His 19 gamewinning goals in the postseason is second to only one manWayne Gretzky (24), Lemieuxs summertime golfing buddy. Lemieux has his name on the Cup three times, with three different teams.

He is a scoundrel who will do anythinganythingto win a hockey game. He borrows this quote from Bobby Knight: Bury me upside down so the critics can kiss my ass.

This is a guy who, his wife says, is sweet and easygoing. This is a guy who feels guilty that his career has been so much more successful than that of his brother Jocelyn, who also played in the NHL. This is a guy who is devoted to another brother, Serge, who cant walk or talk and has been institutionalized most of his life because of cerebral palsy.

To find the other Claude Lemieux, you have to travel to Mont-Laurier, Quebec, a small, French-speaking farming community 100 miles northwest of Montreal, and you have to go back about 28 years. On Saturday mornings at 5, little 6-year-old Claude would grab his pillow, his lunch and his fathers hand and climb into a truck. The two of them would cover hundreds of miles, criss-crossing Quebec, delivering lumber and other goods. At night, they would pull into a truck stop, and Claude would sleep peacefully on the front seat. Whenever I could go with him, I would, he says. I just wanted to be with my dad.

Family is important to Lemieux. He and Jocelyn, his younger brother by two years, played hockey together, both on the street and on the outdoor rink behind their elementary school. (Claude would wear three pairs of socks so he could fit into his secondhand skates.)

Serge, just a year younger than Claude, had to be institutionalized because of his illness. As a kid, when wed visit Serge, says Claude, I would keep my head down. Wed spend the day with him, and Id see other kids with all these serious problems. I was so young. I didnt understand. I didnt want to be there. I go today, and its still not easy.

But Serge brought Claude and Jocelyn closer together. The reality of having a brother who was handicapped made us more aware of how lucky we were, says Jocelyn. And because of Serge, I think Claude and I may have appreciated each other more.

As a hockey player, Claude was always the star. At the junior level, he showed what kind of postseason player he would become, scoring 23 goals and 40 points in just 14 games during the 1985 Quebec League playoffs. The following spring, Lemieux lit up the hollowed old Montreal Forum. The 20-yearold rookie scored 10 playoff goals, including two overtime game-winners, helping his boyhood heroes, the Montreal Canadiens, to an unexpected Stanley Cup. Hes been a valued teammate and hated rival ever since.

Jocelyns career, though, was a struggle. He played 13 pro seasons, but he suffered through every injury imaginable. He finally retired in 1999.

Last August, in Westlake, Calif., where Claude and his family spend their summers, the two brothers, their wives and another couple were dining in a small restaurant. Midway through the meal, Claude got up to make a toast. No one knew what he was about to say, says Jocelyn. What he said was that he was going into the season with a heavy heart because I had retired. He said he wished I could have had some better luck during my career.

I still get choked up, says Jocelyn. It was just so heartfelt.

Claude Lemieux has a heart, all right. It was captured by Deborah Henson back when he was playing for the Devils in 95, their first Stanley Cup season. Lemieux spotted the statuesque beauty from Boone, N.C., in a Manhattan hotspotSohos Boom nightclub. He was there with former Devils teammate Mike Peluso, just two hockey players chatting up some women. Deborah ducked out in search of a cab. Claude followed her and asked for a date. I was kind of rude, Deborah laughs.

Back inside the club, Peluso got Deborahs phone number for his teammate from one of her girlfriends. A week later, Lemieux and Peluso double-dated with Deborah and a friend. I was a little skeptical, Deborah says. Hed been married and already had two children, but he was so sweet and easygoing.

They clicked, just as Lemieux was clicking for the Devilsscoring 13 playoff goals, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and his second Stanley Cup. They were married two months later, just five months after their first date, in a small wedding at the Ocean Club on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. It was a short time, Lemieux says. But we both felt it was right.

Hey, she made him happy. So happy that he wanted to sing. As Deborah walked down the aisle, Lemieux made like Van Morrison (or Rod Stewart) and started warbling, Have I Told You Lately ... ? Says Deborah, He loves to sing, so I wasnt too surprised when he told me he was going to do it.

I was nervous, Lemieux says. But, I think I did a pretty good job.

Claude and Deborah have two children now, Brendan, 4, and Claudia, 2. At this moment, Claudia is climbing all over her fathers lap as he sits on a couch in the living room of their spacious (and rented) New Jersey home. Shes wearing Brendans replica Devils jersey, and Claude is giddy with parental love. Girls are different, he says, and he should know. He has three boys, two of whom (Christopher and Michael) live in Montreal with his first wife.

Its raining, so this off-day is spent indoors, with Dad and daughter staring into each others sparkling blue eyes. Claude Lemieux, the NHLs most hated, starts to laugh. Claudia starts to laugh. Here he is, amidst the pressure of the playoffs, trying to satisfy his enormous will to win, living with the burden of being hockeys marked man. And Claude Lemieux is at peacehis wife nearby, his son playing on the floor, his daughter laughing in his lap.

Dallas Stars fans will see a different Claude Lemieux. This, after all, is the man whose mere presence in Detroit still requires extra security. Back in 1996, when Lemieux was playing for Colorado, he cross-checked Detroits Kris Draper into the boards, breaking Drapers face. He was suspended for two playoff games. It was a controversial hit that many objective hockey observers argue was more circumstance than malice. Still, his reputation was further stained.

Lemieux established that reputation upon entering the league. He remembers saying things to opponents that made even his older Montreal teammates glare at him. I wont tell you what I said, Lemieux explains, but those looks told me I crossed the line.

Now he is 34 (he turns 35 on July 16) and his teammates give him other kinds of looks. After the Devils lost Game 4 to the Flyers to go down 31 in the series, and got an earful from coach Larry Robinson, fellow veteran Ken Daneyko called Lemieux at 1 a.m. for some support. Claudes message? Were not going to lose this series.

And hes more than just nasty on the ice. In Game 5, he played a near perfect game, leading the charge into those dangerous neighborhoods along the boards and in front of the net, winning face-offs, killing penalties, winning battle after battle. When Sergei Nemchinov suffered a chilling, bloody facial injury in the second period, Lemieux settled his teammates down. Claude told us that Sergei would be all right, said teammate Bobby Holik. He told us the only thing we could do for Sergei was win the game.

Lemieux made a more tangible contribution in Game 6. Midway through the third period of a scoreless game, Lemieux read a backhand clearing pass from Flyers D Andy Delmore, wedged his body against the boards and kept the puck in the zone. He quickly moved it to Holik, then drove to the net. When Holiks shot pinballed loose in the slot, Lemieux was there to calmly lift a backhander over the glove of Philly goalie Brian Boucher.

Says New Jersey rookie Scott Gomez, who has become like another younger brother to Lemieux: Hes all about winning. The rookie and the vet sat side-byside on the bench late in Game 7. The Devils and the Flyers were locked in a 1-1 tie. Under five minutes left in regulation. Next goal wins. Gomez, whose legs felt heavy, turned to Lemieux and said, Im scared, man. Lemieux, sweat pouring off his face, smiled and winked. Youll be all right, kid. A minute later, he wasPatrik Elias scored the game-winner.

On July 1 Lemieux becomes an unrestricted free agent. He says he would love to help win another Cup for the Devils, re-sign in New Jersey and end his career there. But the changing ownership of the team has clouded that option. So he has put his future on hold, to be dealt with later. Dont think for a moment that there wont be a gang of GMs lining up to bring the most hated man in hockey to their teams. Because Claude Lemieux plays a hard role in a hard game. Hes an SOB who will slash you, cross-check you, run you into the boards. He will do anythinganythingto win a hockey game.

But as Deborah Lemieux says, Hes such a great person. What he does on the ice is just part of his job.

When the Dallas Stars look in the mirror, they see the New Jersey Devils. And vice versa. The similarity between these two teams is scary.

Both are defensive teams that can score. Theyre both captained by a big, tough defensemanScott Stevens for New Jersey and Derian Hatcher for Dallas. Those guys can hurt you. As weve seen, Stevens is a great open-ice hitter. Memo to Mike Modano: Keep your head up. Send the same note to Devils going anywhere near Hatcher.

New Jersey coach Larry Robinson will try to match his best defensive pairStevens and rookie Brian Rafalskiagainst Dallas top line of Modano, LW Jere Lehtinen (rounding into form after missing most of the season with an ankle injury) and RW Brett Hull. And expect the Stars Ken Hitchcock to send out Hatcher and his roughneck partner, Richard Matvichuk, to shut down the Devils first line (C Jason Arnott, LW Patrik Elias and RW Petr Sykora). Home team gets the last change, so Stevens and Modano will see a lot of each other in New Jersey.

Everybody says the West is best, so the Devils will be the underdog. I expect Robinson to use that with his players. In that role, they should be loose. Ds Vladimir Malakhov and Scott Niedermayer must step up. Just playing okay wont be good enough. Also, with the first line under wraps, the secondary players have to score. That means you, (RW) Alexander Mogilny. A goal or two from RW Randy McKay wouldnt hurt, either. He can play better.

The Stars also will need more contributions from their second, third and fourth lines. C Joe Nieuwendyk, last years Conn Smythe winner, has been inconsistent. Until RW Jamie Langenbrunner returns from his knee injury, Nieuwendyk will be playing with LW Scott Thornton and RW Grant Marshall. If theyre not clicking, Hitchcock will juggle his lines.

As always, it will come down to the goaltenders. This is where I give Dallas an edge. Eddie Belfour was fantastic against Colorado. Without him, the Stars probably would be planning their summer vacation. Martin Brodeur, meanwhile, struggled against the Flyers. He has to play at least as well as Belfour, maybe better.

The pick? Its close, but because of Belfour, Ill take the Stars in six.