Magnificent, not Great

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:53 AM ET

In the end, Wayne won. As hockey fans and historians look back at a career inextricably linked to that of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux retired yesterday the second-best of an era.

Punctuating a career that featured several of the most stirring comebacks in sports lore, Lemieux's final attempt to resurrect his greatness fell short, prompting him to admit age and ailments had finally rendered him average.

It was the type of announcement Gretzky never had to make mid-season as he recognized that by season's end in 1999 it was time to go. He left in celebration.

As frustrating as it was for the hockey world to see Gretzky leave the game at age 38 with so much left to give, he made it clear he didn't want to end his playing days the same abrupt way Brett Hull and Lemieux have this year -- in disappointment.

The departures of the two greatest players of their time offer a significant footnote to a debate that has raged in Canadian hockey circles since Lemieux drew comparisons to Gretzky in junior: Who's better, Wayne or Mario?

Gretzky-backers point to his scoring titles (10 to Lemieux's six), Stanley Cups (4 to 2), Hart Trophies (9 to 3) and scoring streaks (51 to 46 games).

Still, Lemieux left the game in 1997 with a higher points-per-game average. The argument from Lemieux fans went that with fewer games lost to injury, the Magnificent Montrealer would have challenged many more of Gretzky's records as the game's most prolific scorer. As the 40-year-old Lemieux said yesterday: "We'll never know."

Much like he did in 1995, when he returned from back problems and Hodgkin's disease, Lemieux made a stunning return to the game in 2000, ending a three-year hiatus to allow his son to see him play as well as rescue his investment in the franchise he owned.

Picking up his first of three points 33 seconds in, it wasn't long until injuries stifled another blistering scoring pace.

Then came one of the crowning achievements in a career bookended by stunning international victories: Captaining Canada to Olympic gold.

Whether it was his Canada Cup-clinching goal in 1987 or his subtle decision to allow a Theo Fleury pass to go through his skates to a salivating Paul Kariya in Salt Lake, Lemieux always excelled on the world stage.

Seemingly effortless in his stride and impossible to knock off the puck, the style of towering Lemieux was vastly different from that of Gretzky, whose unmatched hockey sense allowed him to overcome a tiny frame and awkward stride. Ironically, it was Lemieux's big body that betrayed him throughout his career.

Two radically different players with similar impacts, one gave life to hockey in L.A., the other saved the sport in Pittsburgh. One never said 'no' to his country, the other took many years to realize it was wrong to turn down invites to play for Canada at the world championships and the 1996 World Cup.

Both had a flare for the dramatic, forever coming through in the crunch. As good friends, Lemieux eventually took a lead from Gretzky and became the type of ambassador the game demanded of him. He always strived to equal Gretzky's accomplishments, as lofty as they were.

Stripping the puck from Ray Bourque to score on the first shot of his first NHL shift, Lemieux forever did the type of things only Gretzky had done before him.

However, in the end, the one stat to which Lemieux fans clung had also swung back in Gretzky's favour -- points per game. Lemieux's sagging finish landed him at 1.88. Gretzky finished at 1.92. Incredible, both.

With the close of Lemieux's career, it's time to put the argument to rest.

With all due respect, as good as Lemieux was, there was only one Great One.

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"Playing against Mario was always special. My two most important games in my career were my first game against Mario and my first game against Wayne Gretzky. It's a sad day."

-- Sabres Centre Daniel Briere

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"It'll leave a big void for the NHL."

-- Former NHLer Vincent Damphousse

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"He's been one of my idols for years."

-- Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier

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"You don't replace players like Mario Lemieux."

-- Coyotes head coach and NHL great one, Wayne Gretzky

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"Gretzky and him are the top two players ever and I'll be able to say when I retire I played with one of them."

-- Flyers centre, Lemieux's Team Canada teammate Simon Gagne

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"There was no 'me' in him at all. He was truly a leader."

-- Team Canada coach Pat Quinn

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"I'm very disappointed. I'm the biggest fan of Mario there is."

-- Kings forward Jeremy Roenick


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