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In No Uncertain Terms, Lemieux Returns

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 17, 1995

PITTSBURGH -- Mario Lemieux had a new home built here, on the fringes of his adopted city, more than two years ago. He never thought, then, that he would spend so much time pacing its spacious rooms, his mind racing, while he wondered what the future held.

Oh, there were distractions. Lemieux played with his daughter, Lauren, who was born during the 1993 playoffs. He was in the delivery room last spring for the birth of his second daughter, Stephanie. He felt blessed every time he was able to pick up either of his children, so accustomed had he become to the shooting pains in his back.

He thought, too, about the cancer -- about the disease that had sentenced him to so many mornings at Beaver County Medical Center, where he underwent radiation therapy in the early months of 1993. He thought about hockey, the game that he loves, and the pain of his long absence from it. And he wondered, more than once, if he ever would be ready to return to the NHL.

In what has been dubbed the Year of the Comeback -- Michael Jordan, Monica Seles and Mike Tyson spring to mind -- Lemieux hesitated to make his much-anticipated return until he was certain he would once again be, in his words, "one of the best hockey players in the world."

So what Lemieux has done these past few months has been remarkable to everyone, save Mario, who did not say "yes" to the Penguins until he knew the time was right. After long struggling with Hodgkin's disease, with the second of two back surgeries, with radiation-related anemia, and with his fearful thoughts of mortality, Lemieux has returned to the game the way that he left it: He is, once again, the best player in the NHL.

"I wanted to come back and be one of the best in the world," said Lemieux, who missed all of the 1994-95 season and all but 22 games of the previous one. "That's the only way I know how to play hockey. After all these years of being on top, I could never play this game any other way."

Still cautious of his back, Lemieux entered this season -- a season for which the Penguins have agreed to pay him $4.5 million -- having decided not to play in back-to-back games, and thus he will not face the Capitals in tonight's game at USAir Arena (He will, however, play them Saturday night in Pittsburgh). He is expected to play in 60-65 contests in the 84-game schedule, but the way he has been playing, Lemieux will only need 65 games to break the NHL's single-season scoring record, which Wayne Gretzky set in the 1985-86 season with 215 points.

After 12 games (his team has played 15), Lemieux has a league-leading 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists) and his performance has been nothing short of breathtaking. Big, but deceptive; strong, but elusive; Lemieux may not be 100 percent, but he still has that ability to see the ice in a way that few others can.

"The feeling for everyone, I think, was Wait and see,' " said Penguins Coach Ed Johnston. "But once he got into camp, things came very quickly, and then it was just a matter of getting him into some games. Once he started to get his timing back, it was like all of a sudden, he's seeing the ice better and then, there he is, getting in position to make the difference when the game is on the line."

Johnston calls Lemieux's early-season success "stunning," but it shouldn't be for anyone who watched Lemieux make the second of his three comebacks (the first came after he had back surgery in 1990-91) in the spring of 1993. In one of the most remarkable performances in the sport, Lemieux returned from six weeks' worth of radiation treatments and rallied from an 18-point deficit to outscore Buffalo's Pat LaFontaine for the league scoring title, the fourth of his career.

He missed 24 full games that season, and was admittedly exhausted from the radiation, yet it hardly seemed to matter when one watched Lemieux score 56 points in his final 20 games and carry the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins into the playoffs.

Asked this week, though, Lemieux said that this comeback has been by far the hardest. The length of his absence, 18 months, seemed daunting. He knew his age (30) also would weigh against him. And, for a long time, he doubted his ability to face what seemed to be such an incredible challenge.

"When I had to take the year off, I really thought my career was over," he said. "I had all those back problems, I was so tired from the radiation. It was tough getting up in the morning. It was tough tying my shoes. It was a battle for me, every single day."

While he underwent the radiation therapy, Lemieux refused to allow himself to think about the cancer -- he admitted, shortly after, that he would think the words I have cancer,' only when lying in the tube for radiation, and at no other time during his day-to-day life. When he came back from those treatments and played so spectacularly, he refused to admit that the cancer had changed him, insisting that he was the same Mario he had been before.

It was in that postseason, though, that Lemieux first started to feel, well, human, and when he could no longer perform close to his usual level -- not then and not the next fall -- he knew it was time to take a break from the game.

"In the playoffs, I was maybe 50 percent, and that's something I could not accept," Lemieux said. "I couldn't play like that. That's really what forced me to make my decision."

With 18 months' worth of time to kill, Lemieux found himself facing things he never wanted to face. For a long time, it hurt. It doesn't anymore.

"Anytime you can come back from something like Hodgkin's, it makes you feel good about where you are and what you can be," said Lemieux, who has watched a cousin unsuccessfully fight that same battle. "From time to time, I still go back and think about my battle with Hodgkin's, even now. You can't help it."

Lemieux has an unwritten rule now. When he thinks about the cancer, and about the chronic back pain, he also thinks about all that he has accomplished in the sport: two Stanley Cup titles (in 1991 and 1992, and he was the playoff most valuable player both those years), two Hart Trophies as the league most valuable player (in 1988 and 1993), four scoring titles, six appearances in the all-star game (he also sat in a luxury box in 1993, selected but unable to play because of his health, when the game was played in his native Montreal), and other milestones too numerous to mention.

He also thinks, once in a while, about what might have happened had he been injury and illness free throughout his career. Would he have been able to eventually break some of Gretzky's seemingly unbreakable records for career goals and points? Would he have been the best ever? "I think about it," Lemieux admitted. "But I think you just have to accept that it was not meant to be."

Johnston is less willing to let the idea go.

"Let's just say, it would have been scary," the coach answered, when asked the same questions. "Scary, indeed."

At this point, Johnston is just thrilled to have Lemieux in a Pittsburgh uniform. Having taken over the team in 1993, Johnston never has had a full season of Mario's magic with which to work. He speculated this week that Lemieux might be able to play in back-to-back games (given that they are followed by two or three days' rest) starting sometime after Christmas. But that depends on the state of Lemieux's back, and no one wants to push him.

"I'll take him for 60 games," Johnston said. "Who wouldn't?"

The Capitals should feel lucky, then, that the schedule makes it such that they will not have to face Lemieux on their home ice tonight. Lemieux has scored at least one point in each of his games, has scored up to seven in one outing (on Nov. 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning), and had two goals and an assist in a fabulous performance against Dallas in Pittsburgh Tuesday night. The Penguins have built their marketing campaign around the phrase: "The Three Most Feared Words in Hockey -- Mario is Back," and Jaromir Jagr, a fellow Penguin, said he has seen absolute proof.

"First of all, just by having him back, we get more respect," said Jagr, who has 15 goals and 18 assists himself, good for second in the league behind Lemieux. "You can see it. They're more scared of us when we have Mario."

The proof also is in the Penguins' results this season: Although they lead the Northeast Division with a 9-3-3 record, the Penguins are 0-2-1 in the three games they have played without Lemieux.

"We have to practice how to play without him," Jagr said. "I think that's why we haven't won a game without him -- because we haven't done that. It's like we don't want to practice what to do when he's not there. But when he isn't, you have to change the game plan -- the power play has to pick it up, everyone has to play better."

In Lemieux's absence, Jagr, a 22-year-old Czech, won the league's scoring title in the 1994-95 season, and he has long become a star in his own right. But scoring title or no, Jagr still worships Lemieux the way he did as a child.

"He was my idol," Jagr said, with no embarrassment. "He is now, and always will be. The best thing that ever happened to me was I was drafted by Pittsburgh and able to play with this guy. I know that if I'm smart, I'll look at him and learn from him. That's what I've always tried to do."

The most valuable lesson Jagr has learned from Lemieux is this: Hide your frustration, hide your fear, hide your impatience. Jagr knows Lemieux well enough by now to sense when he is growing restless on the ice, but he still marvels at how well Lemieux hides it. He also knows Lemieux well enough to know how difficult it has been for him to stage this comeback. And he marvels at how spectacular it has been.

"I guess you shouldn't be surprised," Jagr said, looking over at his teammate. "After all, everybody knows he is the most talented player in the game."

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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