This captain refuses to hand over his ship without a fight. With an NHL work stoppage expected to arrive at midnight tomorrow, speculation rippled through the Air Canada Centre that Canada's Mario Lemieux might be representing his country on the international stage for the final time when he faces Finland in tonight's World Cup final.
The countdown already has started. Why else would someone ask Team Canada executive Wayne Gretzky who would be in line to succeed Lemieux as captain during the next international tournament, whenever that might be?
While suggesting that Joe Sakic would be the most likely candidate, Gretzky was not ready to write off Magnificent Mario quite yet.
"I hope it's not the last time," Lemieux said yesterday. "I plan to play a few more years if I can stay healthy. It's always nice to compete at a high level and represent your country.
"I'm glad I managed to physically get myself in shape over the summer to compete here with these young guys. It has been a great experience."
When Lemieux looks around the dressing room, he sees numerous players who were just pimply faced kids when he was scoring the Canada Cup winning goal against the Soviets in 1987.
With so many youngsters on the roster, Gretzky briefly addressed the team yesterday.
"This could be one of the greatest days of their lives," Gretzky said. "That's the way they have to look at it.
"We have a lot of guys who have been here before -- Mario, Sakic, (Scott) Niedermayer. And most, if not all, of our young guys have been in big games before at some level or another."
Just ask Brad Richards, who, along with Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, helped the Tampa Bay Lightning defeat Finnish goalie Miikka Kiprusoff and his Calgary Flames in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.
"I remember what we did in June," Richards said. "It's still fresh in my mind.
"I think it's time to step up and relish this opportunity. I can't wait."