Great for the game

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

If Pittsburgh has a heart, if the place has a soul, they'll build the new arena now and put Mario Lemieux's statue in front of it.

Lemieux saved the franchise as a player and as an owner. A few days ago, he resigned as CEO. Yesterday he retired. What a crime it would be if the next big news is that the Penguins are relocating.

While Lemieux is now two steps removed from being associated with the Penguins prior to a sale and relocation, that wasn't the reason he retired yesterday. It was health. But all of the above was background music you couldn't help but hear.

Otherwise it wasn't that sad a day in hockey because of the new Lemieux we've had these past few years. That Lemieux is who we should be celebrating today.

When Lemieux retired for the second time in his career with a press conference televised nationally in Canada yesterday, the emotions were different than the first time.

Lemieux was so different when he came back to add another five years to his career, including being Team Canada captain for the Olympic gold and World Cup gold.

Lemieux, the first time around, was great. But he wasn't a great guy or a great ambassador for the game. He made up for that the second time around. The one point in his retirement speech yesterday where he was emotional was when he delivered a message to the young players in the game.

"Enjoy every moment of it. Just enjoy every moment of it. Your career goes by very quickly. It's a great game and you guys are all special to me in the NHL."

When Lemieux retired the first time, in 1997, then returned following a triumph over cancer, a rare bone infection and painful back problems, he embraced the game even though the then-NHL had allowed the life to be squeezed out of it. He enjoyed the players, the people, the fans and the media.

What he'd become in the time he was away was as great a gift to leave as the memories of his moments and his statistics.

HOCKEY LEGEND

The people in Pittsburgh have two Stanley Cups to remember Mario Lemieux by. In Canada we have those and more. We have that Canada Cup of all Canada Cups when No. 99 fed the pass to No. 66 to score the goal to beat the Soviet Union.

We have the Olympic gold and World Cup gold. We have Mario Lemieux as a hockey legend to put up there with Gretzky, Mark Messier, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard as the greatest of the greats.

We also have the question to debate over the ages. If Mario Lemieux had been healthy for his entire career, if he'd played more than 915 games, how many more goals than 690, how many points more than 1,033, would he have produced?

"If I could play this game I'd still be on the ice," he said. "This is it. It hurts."

I was there, in Pittsburgh, on Jan. 9, when Lemieux returned to the ice to practise with the Penguins. He sounded so hopeful he'd be able to get back to game shape and resume his career again. Obviously that hope didn't last long.

Lemieux had been sidelined by atrial fibulation, a heart palpitation problem which causes pulse rates to differ dramatically. "I can no longer play at the level that I was accustomed to in the past and that has been very, very frustrating to me throughout this past year."

Years from now, Lemieux may look back and say the heart flutters came after he lost the last thing he had to play for - to captain Canada at the Turin Olympic Winter Games. When he told Gretzky to take his name off the list was probably when Lemieux mentally filled out his retirement papers.

The irony is that the game he held in there to be able to play, the one without all the clutching and grabbing and neutral zone trapping, is the only one he couldn't play when it finally arrived.

"I realized the new NHL is really for the young guys and I think we have a lot of them in the league now. Some young guys - and we have a few of them here in Pittsburgh - are dominating. These young guys are the future of the NHL."

LEFT HIS LEGACY

Mario Lemieux, the second time he retired, left his legacy in being a man for those young players to model themselves after on and off the ice. Let it be written after the second time around what wasn't written the first. He was a great in the game and he was a great for the game.


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