DETROIT -- Take a look at New Jersey Devils right wing Claude Lemieux, sitting there in street clothes, smiling, being gracious, as the needling questions come one after another. Is he a bad guy? Is he, as so many fans and opposing players suggest, one of the most disliked players in the NHL?
Well, yes, he said.
"I don't think anyone likes to be known as the most hated man in hockey," said Lemieux, 29. "But if the way I play, the job I do, the role I'm assigned, aggravates people and makes them not like me or hate the way I play hockey, I can't help that. What's important to me is to be an asset to my team."
Lemieux was an asset in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Devils and the Detroit Red Wings. He scored the game-winning goal that gave the Devils a one-game lead in this best-of-seven series, with Game 2 tonight at Joe Louis Arena.
He also has been the Devils' biggest asset throughout the playoffs, scoring a league-leading 12 postseason goals -- after having produced just six in the entire 48-game regular season.
But his reputation, earned primarily by the way he plays defense, is that of a cheap-shot artist. He doesn't mind hitting players in the back or talking trash.
This season, Lemieux was caught throwing a punch at New York Islander Brett Lindros after Lindros was checked into the New Jersey bench, where Lemieux was sitting.
At another time, he so riled Cam Neely that the Boston Bruins right wing finally threw down his gloves and went after Lemieux, only to have Lemieux cower on the ice, inspiring Neely to call him a "gutless puke."
"You know, you have to live with the reputation that you have," Lemieux said. "There is always this thing that players feel you shouldn't play as physical against their best players, but when you're assigned a role to shadow someone, whether it is Neely or [Jaromir] Jagr, if I'm going to let them do whatever they want, obviously it is going to be a long night for me. So . . . if you're going to be on top of the other team's best player, you're not going to be well-liked."
Detroit's Dino Ciccarelli, who got into it with Lemieux in Game 1, shrugs it off.
"People say he gets under everybody's skin, and he does that," Ciccarelli said. "He has a cocky attitude, a temperament. So guys don't say good things about him. Who cares? I'm sure his teammates are loving him right now."
Sometimes, however, Lemieux is not always the most popular player on his own team.
Devils coach Jacques Lemaire says having Lemieux on your team can be trying.
"It is not just other players whose skin he gets under," Lemaire said. "He does it with the coach, too."
But defenseman Ken Daneyko said Lemieux's 12 goals in 17 playoff games make him easier to take.
"Hey, I say it to Claude all the time -- I don't know where this guy is in the regular season," said Daneyko. "He has better hands in the playoffs. He shoots way better. He plays faster. I don't know why it is, but I'm telling you he's making moves and scoring goals like the Sergei Fedorovs that I didn't see during the regular season. But he can be the biggest pain in the you-know-what, even to us. He says things that can bother you, he gets on your nerves, but when you want to win and want to score a big goal and make a big play, you want him on your side."
When Lemieux was asked if his teammates had voiced disappointment because of his disdain for the regular season, he seemed taken aback.
"Disappointment in what? In the fact that I can lift my game and play well in the playoffs?" he said. "I think it's a compliment. Not everyone is gifted to play better under pressure, but I always play better under pressure."
Lemieux, who won a Stanley Cup his rookie year with Montreal, has been through some bad times the past two years, "though I don't go crying to the media with excuses," he said. There was a divorce, which wasn't finalized until near the end of the 1993-94 season. And this season there was a difficult contract negotiation, which wasn't settled until just before the playoffs started.
Now, signed for the next two years with a club option on a third, he seems totally focused on winning his second Stanley Cup.
"It's fun for me to excel and do as good as I can with my style," Lemieux said. "When you win the Cup as a rookie, you think it's going to be that way every year or two. But things happen. Now I appreciate being back here . . . and, along the way I've learned to live with the criticism and compliments. I have to do my job and play the game the way I know how to and live with that."
NOTE: Detroit center Keith Primeau, who wrenched his back in Game 1 and said he still is hurting, skated for 10 minutes at practice. "I plan to play until someone tells me I'm not," Primeau said. Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman said he is planning on Primeau playing, unless "he tells me he can't." Primeau said he didn't think he'd be able to take faceoffs.
DETROIT RED WINGS vs. NEW JERSEY DEVILS (New Jersey leads series, 1-0) Game 1: Devils, 2-1
Tonight: at Detroit, 8, ESPN
Thursday: at New Jersey, 8, ESPN
Saturday: at New Jersey, 8, Fox
June 26: at Detroit, 8*, ESPN
June 28: at N. Jersey, 7:30*, ESPN
June 30: at Detroit, 8*, Fox