Time to pass the torch

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:36 AM ET

You never thought with Mario Lemieux that it would be the heart.

That seemed the one part that couldn't fail.

Who else had come back from such a staggering variety of physical ailments?

An infection leeched into his bones and tore into his back. Hodgkin's disease darkened his future. Hip problems shut him down after 10 games two years ago.

But it's true. An irregular heartbeat and atrial fibrillation put him in hospital Dec. 7 and ended his career.

Monday night, with his decision to retire already made, Lemieux suffered another episode.

They call that a message.

"It's a big part of why I'm not feeling 100%," Lemieux said at his farewell news conference yesterday in Pittsburgh.

"It was maybe the most frustrating thing. Playing with it and practising with it and not being able to get back to where I needed to be."

Many say the Almighty routes some of his best lessons through the heart.

Lemieux is no exception.

At 40, he was a shadow of himself.

The magnificent skating stride had eroded to just good. Pucks he once controlled as a cat pawed a ball of twine somehow eluded him.

Remember his shocked expression in Salt Lake when he missed an open net? It looked like the first time it had ever happened to him.

As always, the lure of the dressing room proved strong. When he unretired in 2001, Lemieux wept at the mention of the son who wouldn't have otherwise remembered him playing. This time, his voice quivered when he spoke of leaving the dressing room, that perennial haven from real life.

"All I can say to the young players is enjoy every moment of it.

"The new NHL," he said, is for them, "the young guys."

No amount of marshalled guile, no reservoir of leftover greatness can paper that over. And so Lemieux leaves, as did Mark Messier and Brett Hull and Ron Francis.

Lemieux's heart always has been well discussed.

He was, through most of his career, the glacial superstar, the counterpoint to Wayne Gretzky's barely submerged maniacal intensity.

With Lemieux, it wasn't a uniform so much as a tux.

"For such a big guy he moved so smoothly up the ice," St. Louis Blues coach Mike Kitchen said. "He had everything. Hand skills, skating, vision. He brought it all together."

Only Jean Beliveau approached that level of elegance, and even he could not match Lemieux's incomparable talent.

Lemieux had three five-goal games and three six-assist games. He once owned a 46- game point streak in which he scored 103 points. His undressing of Minnesota goalie Jon Casey was the touchstone moment of the Penguins' first of two Stanley Cups.

The injuries and the illnesses did what the league could not. It drew out and then framed a resilience no one thought possible.

The cancer, the Hodgkin's, will be Lemieux's greatest triumph. In 1992-93, he came back from Hodgkin's and breezed to the scoring title despite missing 23 games. He had finally found a challenger worthy of him.

There would be great seasons, including a 69-goal campaign in 1995-96, but the arc of his career and the team's returned to earth.

At 32, he retired, citing the terrible standard of play in vogue in the league that time. The retirement lasted three years and he came back to a financially struggling team that was, in a bizarre turn, soon to be his.

He leaves a team that has lost 10 consecutive games but, paradoxically, has a remarkably future.

Sidney Crosby is cut of the same once-a-generation fabric Lemieux was. Marc-Andre Fleury looks like a franchise goalie, Evgeni Malkin will be a star. The Pens could have another first-overall draft pick this summer.

BRIGHT FUTURE

A proposal is in place for a new arena with gaming proceeds. With Lemieux gone, a new management group likely would let go Craig Patrick and a tired management team.

The potential for rebirth is everywhere.

It is now Crosby's team.

Soon it will be his franchise.

His is the heartbeat that now matters most.


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