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Lemieux Glides Into Greatness

Sat., Feb. 15, 1997

When the puck is on the end of his stick it is like the watch in the hands of the hypnotist.

Back and forth it moves, in a slow, silken, transfixing rhythm, and you get ensnared in that mesmerizing motion and before you are even aware of what is happening he has lulled you into Lullaby Land. And when you snap back to wakefulness, the Pittsburgh Penguins are celebrating yet another goal. Scored, or set up, by Mario Lemieux.

For a long time Lemieux played Lou Gehrig to Wayne Gretzky’s Babe Ruth. For the last few years, though, Lemieux has glided past The Great One and has been hockey’s best player.

It has been the Golden Age for the Blade Runners, having those two on the ice at the same time. It is not necessary to be a fan of the sport, or even to understand it, to appreciate their artistry, their virtuosity. Their passes are those of Magic, or Montana.

But the candles are flickering now. Gretzky, 36, is near the end of his playing career, and Lemieux, 31, is even nearer. In fact, he has done everything except officially announce that this is his final season. He uses the hedge “probably.” Those close to him think that this is his valedictory.

And while there has been no farewell tour as such, in Los Angeles and in Toronto they have treated his appearances as last curtain calls. If this is, indeed, his last season, then his last appearance in Philadelphia could be as early as today. A disquieting and sad thought.

The Penguins and Flyers meet in a matinee before a national television audience.

If he is of a mind to go out while he is still on top, then this is a propitious moment. Once again, he leads the league in scoring.

That he is even playing, let alone performing at such a sustained level of excellence, is remarkable in itself. In modern times, the only other professional athlete who was away from his sport for an extended period and then was able to return as though he had never been away is Michael Jordan.

But Jordan’s exile was voluntarily imposed and done mostly out of boredom. He wanted to give baseball a whack. Lemieux had to have a chronically ravaged back repaired, and then came down with Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer. Also a bone infection and anemia. He missed 18 months in all, which he spent undergoing surgery twice and taking a series of radiation treatments.

When he came back, he played less than a complete schedule, sitting out 12 of the 82 games - and still scored more points (161) than anyone else.

In a dozen NHL seasons, he has hardly ever been without an injury. His back has been so bad that other people have had to lace his skates for him. There probably has never been an athlete so good at coming back.

Mickey Mantle had a star-spangled career, but his fans always wondered what his numbers might have been had he been healthy. Mario Lemieux has Himalayan numbers, but how much higher might he have piled them if he had been able to stand up without help?

The irony is, he says he has felt better this year than he has in five, and yet he may be skating the last waltz. His retirement will not be because of physical reasons, rather family ones. Lemieux is a father of three, the youngest one born last year, and three months premature. It was a wrenching time for Lemieux and his wife.

What has always set Lemieux apart is that while he plays a sport of spurts, he has always been an elegant glider. Most of hockey consists of bursts of acceleration, players’ heads down as they pump their legs furiously, then brake abruptly and speed off in the other direction.

But Gretzky has always been most dangerous when he is stationary, and stationed behind the net, where he has revolutionized his sport. And Lemieux has always been most dangerous when he is on cruise control with that 6-foot-4 frame and the long, long reach allowing him to engulf the rink.

Over their careers, Lemieux and Mark Messier have had some dandy duels. Messier, with that huge oxygen tank of his and his tenacity, has spent more than a decade shadowing Lemieux.

“You try to keep yourself between Mario and the net,” Messier said. “And you depend on your support. He is so good that if you’re more than 2 feet away from him, you’re too far.”

Sport, like life, is all about making adjustments. About compensating. As injury and age have siphoned speed from Lemieux, he has refined his moves, widened his vision and become even more patient. He will hold the puck … and hold, hold, hold … forcing everyone else to react to him.

And the defenders will close in anxiously, fearfully, wary of what he will do to them.

Never look directly into the eyes of the cobra, apprentice snake charmers are warned. The serpent will hypnotize you.

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