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Retirement of Lemieux is a net loss

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Mario Lemieux has surprised us before.

In 1995, he came back from cancer to regain his status as hockey's most scintillating scorer.

In 2000, he returned from a three-year retirement (he had already been elected to the Hall of Fame) to lead Pittsburgh back to the NHL playoffs.

He was the Michael Jordan of hockey, one whose skills seemed so sublime that no barrier could hold him back.

But Lemieux sounded out of surprises when he announced his second retirement yesterday afternoon. He said he could no longer play to his own standards and called the NHL "a league for young guys."

Doctors gave Lemieux, 40, a diagnosis in early December of an irregular heartbeat that must be controlled by medication. He has also had hip problems. He announced last week that the ownership group he leads would look to sell the Penguins.

If Lemieux is indeed finished, a generation of sports stars that included him, Jordan and John Elway is also near kaput. Only Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds are holding on at that level.

When Lemieux burst on the scene as a hockey prodigy in 1984, he invited ambivalence. He had been touted as perhaps the greatest prospect ever, having scored 282 points in 70 games of his final junior season. He wore number 66, an inversion of Wayne Gretzky's 99 and a sign that only by becoming the best in the game could he meet expectations.

His grace, reach and command of shooting and passing angles allowed him to score with ease. But he was known to loaf on defense, and his conditioning was suspect. He smoked a pack a day for heaven's sake.

And yet, he kept scoring.

At the 1987 Canada Cup, he showed he might be a true rival to Gretzky, leading the tournament with 11 goals and scoring the game-winner in the championship.

Lemieux showed his true dominance in 1988-89, when he scored 199 points in 76 games, a level known only to Gretzky. But Lemieux received less credit. He was so physically gifted that he was supposed to score like that.

He was so good that even hockey heathens could recognize it. At 6 feet 4, 230 pounds, he ripped his shots and couldn't be pushed around, but he also passed with as much finesse as Gretzky.

He had freak games like the 1989 playoff game in which he had a hat trick within seven minutes and ended up with eight points against the Flyers.

Even as a young man, Lemieux struggled with injuries. In 1990-91, he missed most of the regular season but returned to score 44 points in the playoffs as the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup. He led them to a repeat the next year and had one of his best seasons in 1992-93, when he averaged nearly three points a game.

He was cresting. But then came the diagnosis of Hodgkin's disease. Lemieux played through the treatments, won another scoring title and another Most Valuable Player award (his first was in 1987-88). But the disease sapped him, and he sat out the 1994-95 season.

No one knew if he'd return or how good he'd be. No athlete of such ability had battled cancer mid-career and returned.

But Lemieux did come back. He averaged nearly a goal a game, captured his third MVP and led the Penguins back to the conference finals. It was among the more miraculous athletic seasons in recent memory.

Like Jordan, Lemieux retired near the peak of his powers. He was 31 and had just led the league in scoring again. But his back was killing him, the Penguins were no longer contending, and he was sick of grabbing defenses.

When he returned in 2000, he said he wanted his 4-year-old son to see him play. And Lemieux put on a show, scoring at the highest rate in the game.

He could no longer glide by defenses, but you'd see these highlights where he'd line up on the side of the goal, almost parallel to the post, take a pass and flick a shot that somehow found the inches of space between goal frame and goalie's pad.

Lemieux's retirement leaves the NHL devoid of a name as recognizable as his. His teammate, 18-year-old Sidney Crosby, has gotten a lot of attention but is still a rookie. Other leading players, like Jaromir Jagr, Peter Forsberg and Dany Heatley, have never transcended hockey.

Lemieux was the prodigy who lived up to his billing and then surpassed it by outrunning disease and time. LeBron James, Albert Pujols, Crosby. They should all hope to come near his level.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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