A star is reborn, and game of hockey rejoices

When Mario Lemieux announced he would be returning to the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey club after three years in retirement, the response was fast and emphatic.

Thirty thousand tickets sold in less than a week. Five hundred people skipped work to watch his first practice; local television covered it live. Now, officials tell us, sellouts are forecast for the rest of the season.

And for good reason. This is, after all, the man who brought Pittsburgh its only two Stanley Cups, the man audacious enough to take some of Wayne Gretzky's glamour and glory to the Steel City.

But that's not the story. The story is in Chicago. And Boston. And Washington. Places where Super Mario made a career of vexing and embarrassing the hometown team. Yet, in these places, too, tickets to games against the Penguins are becoming scarcer than PlayStations.

Lemieux is scheduled to play the first game of his comeback tonight. It's a late-arriving holiday gift for the game of hockey, for his return has taken a league lost in a post-Gretzky haze and once again given it something rare and precious - a transcendent superstar whose allure defies local allegiances, regional rivalries, or international boundaries.

Tonight is a moment full of possibility. For Lemieux, it is an opportunity to get out from under the shadow of the now-retired Great One and find his own place in sporting consciousness. And for hockey, it is a chance to promote one of the most accomplished athletes of modern times.

To be sure, other athletes have made comebacks after prolonged layoffs. Hockey alone has seen both Gordie Howe and Guy LaFleur return to the ice after two- and three-year breaks, respectively.

But Lemieux's return comes with something of a twist: He is controlling owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins - a fact that makes him his own most valuable employee.

He got the position last year, adding - if possible - to his already mythological status in Pittsburgh. The Penguins, you see, were about to leave town. The owners had filed for bankruptcy and were looking to sell.

Enter Mario. Still owed $32.5 million deferred salary, he put most of it toward buying the club and keeping it in Pittsburgh.

First a savior as team leader, then as a team owner, Lemieux is now trying a third time. The Penguins needed a strong presence and a premier center.

Lemieux was his own answer.

Unlike other leagues, which prohibit owners from playing, the NHL has no such rule. George Halas once played for the Chicago Bears while he was a part owner in the 1920s, but the situation is unprecedented in modern times, and it raises all sorts of bizarre scenarios.

For example, if you're the Penguins coach, how comfortable are you going to feel about benching the guy who pays you? And if the NHL's labor problems worsen,whose side will Lemieux be on?

Some answers have come. Lemieux says he'll be a player, first and foremost, delegating many responsibilities and not voting on the NHL Board of Governors. He's also agreed to play for the league-average salary of $1.4 million, just so he wouldn't be playing for free.

Never mind that he's basically paying himself.

The important thing - for himself, the Penguins, and hockey - is that he's playing.

Lemieux's return is different. This is no victory lap around the track. He's coming back to win, and given that he's five years younger than Mark Messier - who's still among the league scoring leaders - there's the chance that he can return to something like his best.

Which was awe-inspiring. He won the NHL scoring title six times, he scored more goals per game than any player in history, and he came within one point of joining Gretzky as the only players to score 200 points in a season.

Americans have always embraced exceptional athletes. Babe Ruth famously drew so many fans that the Yankees had to build a new stadium. Even soccer, a sport more often laughed at than lauded in America, enjoyed a measure of prosperity when Pele played for New York. And does anyone remember golf before Tiger Woods?

Lemieux might not have that kind of drawing power, but as he laces up his skates tonight, he immediately becomes the most enticing player on the ice.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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