Mario steps aside

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:46 AM ET

He wrapped himself in the flag after the gold-medal victory over the U.S. at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

He dropped the gloves against that same American team at the 2004 World Cup when he felt they were running goalie Martin Brodeur.

When it came to representing Canada on the international stage the past few years, Mario Lemieux proudly wore his heart on his sleeve and the maple leaf on his chest.

But that legacy appears to have come to an end.

Lemieux, like Steve Yzerman before him, has taken his name off the list of candidates for the Olympic team, opting to pass the torch to up-and-comers like Sidney Crosby, Eric Staal and Jason Spezza.

No Lemieux? No Yzerman?

No offence to those who will skate for Canada in Turin come February, but Team Canada just doesn't seem to have the same aura without Magnificent Mario and Stevie Y in the lineup.

"With the way I've been playing and with young guys like Sid and Spezza and Staal, I just think it's time to step aside. They deserve to be on the team," Lemieux said yesterday, a couple of days after informing Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky of his decision.

Gretzky, who was at the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh last night to scout, among others, Crosby and Colorado's Alex Tanguay, said he expects Lemieux to contribute to the Canadian program in the future.

"He's going to be around Team Canada for a long time," Gretzky said. "One of these days, somehow, some way he's going to be involved again."

Lemieux specifically singled out Crosby, his tenant and teammate in Pittsburgh, suggesting Sid the Kid will be a mainstay with Team Canada for the next two decades.

With his Penguins struggling, the fate of coach Ed Olczyk up in the air and the franchise threatening to move if the financing for a new arena can not be locked up, Lemieux's troubles became even more serious last week when he was taken to hospital with an irregular heart beat.

He subsequently was released after being diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a condition which can be treated with medication. He is scheduled to be re-examined tomorrow and hopes to resume workouts within weeks.

"I would say health (issues) played a role in his decision," Team Canada coach Pat Quinn said. "Either way, as a coach, we can not replace the intangibles he brought in leading us to those significant victories (in 2002 and '04)."

Lemieux's former teammates with Team Canada agree with Quinn, feeling the squad has been stripped of some swagger without No. 66 and No. 19 leading the charge.

"I'm a big believer in presence, and we just don't have as much of it without those two names in the lineup," Brodeur said from New Jersey yesterday afternoon.

"I do think other teams might be more confident against us when they see those two names are not in our lineup."

Brodeur's point was echoed by Mats Sundin, the man expected to captain Team Sweden in Turin.

"It's a little changing of the guard for Canada," Sundin said. "They have a lot of young guys coming up. But Mario, along with Gretzky, arguably was the best in the game and brought confidence to his teammates."

Veteran Team USA member Mike Modano understands the hit Team Canada has absorbed.

"Steve and Mario have been catalysts for them," he said. "Whatever they've asked Mario to do he has done it."


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