Lemieux's legacy has many holes

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:55 AM ET

OTTAWA -- In the 1987 Canada Cup, Mario Lemieux scored one of the greatest goals in Canada's hockey history.

In his career, he won two Stanley Cups and a host of individual trophies.

He won an Olympic gold medal and a World Cup.

Even so, his legacy will be that of a promise unfulfilled.

He had fantastic talent, no doubt about it. But only for brief stretches was he the dominant player in his game.

He started badly, refusing to go to the podium when he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1984. On the advice of his agent, Gus Badali, he opted to remain in his seat, a move that was widely interpreted as an exhibition of disdain for the league he was about to enter.

Then, for four years, he wandered in the wilderness, unable to lead the Penguins to a playoff spot.

It was not until that 1987 Canada Cup, when he teamed up with Wayne Gretzky and scored the memorable winning goal in a three-game championship series against the Soviet Union, that he finally learned what it took to be a winner.

On the opening day of training camp in that series, Gretzky came on to the ice and stood shoulder to shoulder with coach Mike Keenan. It was an expression of support.

At Keenan's other shoulder stood Mark Messier. On the outside fringe of the cluster of players stood Mario Lemieux.

Gretzky and Messier, at the peak of their prowess in that era, had learned the hard way about winning. They had seen their highly skilled Edmonton Oilers team lose a Stanley Cup final to the harder-working New York Islanders before coming to the realization that talent alone was not enough.

In that summer of 1987, they began the education of Mario Lemieux, including him in their group and passing along the trade-craft of winners.

Two seasons later, Lemieux made the playoffs. Two seasons after that, he led his Penguins to the first of their two Stanley Cups and, at that point, his future seemed unlimited.

It was not to be.

Even in the best years, he was plagued by back problems, He rarely ever practised with the team and the widely held perception was that he didn't really care about the game.

He did what needed to be done, but little more. He was guarded in his dealings with the media; he turned down more invitations to play for Canada than he accepted. He complained loudly and publicly about the state of the game, likening it on one occasion to "a garage league."

He missed the 1994-95 season because he contracted Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer, and although he battled it successfully and returned to the game, he retired again two years later at age 32.

Over the years, his agent, Tom Reich, repeatedly had reworked his contracts, so much so that after the 1994 lockout, Murray Craven waited for weeks for an arbitrator's decision as to whether he was or was not a free agent.

The decision depended upon the size of the average NHL salary, but Lemieux's affairs apparently were in such disarray the entire process stopped while the one valid Lemieux contract could be found.

But when the Penguins later filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, one fact became clear. Lemieux was owed $26.2 million US in deferred salaries.

His only realistic chance of getting that money was to assume a share of the team's ownership. And in order to improve the team's fortunes, he ended his retirement.

Once again, there were flashes of brilliance. At one point in the 2002 Olympics, a Swedish broadcaster said he was "skating like an old tractor." But in the gold-medal game, Lemieux was superb.

And so it went -- moments of consummate excellence tempered by slow periods and injury-prompted absences.

Lemieux will go down as one of the greatest players ever. But there will always be that nagging feeling he could have been so much more.


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