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Tuesday, December 12, 2000
Lemieux, Penguins announce his comeback

PITTSBURGH -- The No. 66 jersey is hanging in Mario Lemieux's stall, his skates are sharpened and ready. The only thing missing from the most anticipated comeback in sports since Michael Jordan's is ... Lemieux himself.

ESPN's Darren Pang says there are two reasons why Mario Lemieux wants to come back and notes that he skated with Lemieux in October and found his skills to be in peak condition.

  • Barry Melrose's take
  • Brian Engblom's take
  • Lemieux, whose unexpected comeback sent a shock wave across hockey that stretched from Miami to Minnesota, isn't in good enough shape yet to resume practicing, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Craig Patrick said Friday.

    The Penguins also aren't guessing when Lemieux will play again, although Dec. 27 against Toronto seems to be a target date.

    "His body will determine when he's going to play," Patrick said. "He's not ready yet. He hasn't given me a time frame, and he's going to continue on that (conditioning) program he's on now, but they're going to step it up now that it's public and he doesn't have to hide."

    Lemieux made his dramatic return official Friday by issuing a statement and said he will make no further comment until after Bettman briefs the NHL Board of Governors on Monday. The Penguins have scheduled a 4 p.m. ET news conference for Monday afternoon.

    "I missed the game and missed the challenge of competing," said Lemieux, who will talk to the board by conference call, then hold a news conference. "I am excited by the challenge of attempting a comeback. I look forward to the chance to get back on the ice with the players.

    "I think commissioner Gary Bettman, (director of hockey operations) Colin Campbell, (director of officiating) Andy VanHellemond and their staffs have done a great job of opening up the game. I really like our team and think we have a chance to compete for a championship. And it would be great for me, as a father, to enable my four children to see me play the game."

    To comply with NHL bylaws, Lemieux must resign his position as the Penguins representative on the Board of Governors. It is unclear if he can remain involved in the club's day-to-day operations, but NHL officials will surely clear any hurdles that stand in the way of a return of one of the league's greatest draws.

    Classic Mario
    ESPN Classic on Lemieux:
  • Lemieux biography
  • 1984: Lemieux's debut
  • 1989: 50 goals in 44 games
  • 1997: Swan song
  • Career chronology
  • Career stats
  • When the 35-year-old Lemieux returns, Patrick expects to see the Mario of old, not an old Mario.

    Patrick predicts Lemieux's comeback will have the same dramatic effect on hockey that Jordan's did on basketball. The Chicago Bulls won three NBA titles before Jordan retired to play pro baseball and three after he returned.

    "His impact will be profound," Patrick said. "I think Rick Tocchet said it best, that from the time Mario steps onto the ice until the end of the season, he will be the leading scorer for those games.

    "He's still a young man. You look at the athletes who have retired and could come back, and he is -- by far -- the only one who could make this happen, make a championship possible."

    There is one major difference in their comebacks: Jordan was an active athlete after leaving basketball. But Patrick said anyone who thinks Lemieux is playing again simply out of boredom or to sell more tickets for the team he owns is mistaken.

    Still, Lemieux's announcement forced the Penguins to add additional phone lines in their ticket department. They sold 10,000 game tickets Thursday and the same amount Friday, about 10 times as many as normal.

    Lemieux was so secretive about his comeback, he didn't tell Patrick of his plans until he started working out and became convinced he could do it.

    "I know how determined he is and how much desire he has to accomplish things and he showed that by righting this ship," Patrick said. "Now he needs to accomplish something else. There is a better challenge for him, which is on the ice."

    Lemieux will be the owner when he returns, but he won't be the captain. Lemieux told Patrick he "just wants to be another player" and Jaromir Jagr will retain his captain's "C."

    Patrick expects Lemieux to stay awhile, too.

    "He indicated to us that he's not making this decision based on 60 games," Patrick said. "He's doing it for the seasons to come as well."

    Patrick and Lemieux have worked out contract terms that fit into the Penguins' budget. Lemieux's salary will be more than minimum wage but probably less than the $7 million he was making when he retired.

    Patrick doesn't expect Lemieux's status as owner to adversely affect his relationship with teammates, and neither does defenseman Darius Kasparaitis.

    "When Mario comes back, he's a player, not an owner and we're going to treat him as a player because he's going to be part of the team," Kasparaitis said.

    A team that can win the Stanley Cup this season?

    "I think we have a chance to compete for a championship," Lemieux said.

    When he retired in 1997, Lemieux was weary following years of health problems -- cancer and persistent back pain -- but he has since regained his desire and motivation to play, Patrick said.

    "When you've had something taken away from you or you let it go, you have a different attitude about it. That's what I sense is happening here," Patrick said. "He's missed that so much. He was busy with the ownership thing and getting that right, but now he wants that challenge back, the sense of accomplishing something great."

    Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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    Lemieux's comeback stuns, delights Pens players

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