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'I'm not the future any more' An aging Mario Lemieux may be rundown, but he isn't out of the game, SHAWNA RICHER writes from Pittsburgh

An aging Mario Lemieux may be rundown, but he isn't out of the game, SHAWNA RICHER writes from Pittsburgh

About a week ago, after the Penguins lost their third game in four to the Tampa Bay Lightning, their soft-spoken and thoughtful coach Eddie Olczyk was casually asked about the health of team captain Mario Lemieux, who missed the game with what the team described as a recurring stomach virus.

"Let's be perfectly clear," Mr. Olczyk told a small group of reporters outside the visitors' dressing room in Tampa.

"When people look at him they look at him only as a player.

"But he's got the arena situation, the ownership stuff, he's leading a team and being counted on for a lot of things. The guy has a lot on his mind. He's a unique individual; there's no other guy in sports [who is an owner/player]. A lot is going on. He's a dad with four kids. Being rundown is one thing, but he's got a lot of things on his plate besides playing. We have to make sure we get him right."

Mr. Olczyk's remarks were spontaneous and impassioned, offering a weightier answer than the question demanded. But for the past several weeks, there has been a quiet chatter surrounding the woefully underachieving Penguins about the effectiveness of Mr. Lemieux.

In his 17th season, he has 690 goals and 1031 assists, making him seventh among the 100 career leaders. He has accomplished feats too numerous to list. He stunned the hockey world in December, 2000, when he returned from an early retirement forced by his battle with Hodgkin's disease and chronic back ailments.

But he is 40 years old and aging, as all professional athletes do, in the spotlight before fans and television cameras nightly. He is facing the end of a four-year fight to land the club a new arena to replace the decrepit 44-year-old Mellon Arena.

Some are asking rhetorically whether he can still help the team if he is too old to exploit the rule changes that would have helped his offensive talents soar even higher as a younger player. Some are asking if the years have turned Le Magnifique into L'Ordinaire.

Mr. Lemieux, who has never played a complete season, is on pace to play 76 games and register 64 points. If he accomplishes it -- and that's a substantial if, given his history with back problems -- this would be his most productive and consistent campaign in a decade.

On Saturday night, he got an assist on Sidney Crosby's goal to break a career worst four-game pointless streak. Mr. Olczyk is keeping his shifts shorter to keep his legs fresh. But Mr. Lemieux has found it difficult to adjust to the new rules aimed at helping skill players excel.

"It's been a tough adjustment for the older guys," Mr. Lemieux said. "It's been a lot different game for so many years, and now it's a lot faster and you have to react a lot quicker, be in a certain spot at just the right time. The game expects a lot of guys used to playing differently."

He is among those who lobbied loud and long for the rule changes, but Mr. Lemieux, who is already in the Hockey Hall of Fame, has more often than not looked his age on the ice this season.

"It's frustrating, but it's good for the game and that's the main thing," he said. "We want the game to get better. And we're finally going in that direction. I wish it would have happened 15 years ago, but that's just the way life is."

After a 3-2 loss last week to Buffalo, Mark Madden, the irascible but hockey-loving host on Pittsburgh ESPN Radio, did his post-game show from the Steelhead Brasserie and Wine Bar, a popular hockey hangout across the street from the Igloo.

Behind him on the wall hung a joyful photograph of the Penguins celebrating their 1991 Stanley Cup victory; at the centre of the picture is Mr. Lemieux, hoisting the treasured trophy and grinning ear to ear.

When one caller suggested the Penguins captain be sent to the club's minor-league team across the state to "get into shape," Mr. Madden, a staunch defender of the aging superstar, exploded with rage.

"Sure jerk," he barked sarcastically into his headset. "You're going to send the owner of the team to Wilkes-Barre. Thanks for the call, jackass!"

He gets a handful of anti-Lemieux calls each day.

"My feeling is that it's a small but vocal minority who like to bring him down," Mr. Madden said. "It's my theory they are disgruntled Steelers fans angry because he has been the biggest sports hero in Pittsburgh for two decades. This city is tough on its athletes. But if people were really down on him, you'd hear boos at Mellon Arena."

When Mr. Lemieux skates onto the ice under the spotlight before each game, lusty cheers are all that can be heard.

When nine-year-old Mitch Konckle of Detroit, who also suffers from Hodgkin's, had a chance last month to meet a hockey player for the NBC show Three Wishes, he chose Mr. Lemieux over all the Red Wings.

When the season began, Mr. Lemieux was excited about passing the torch to No. 1 draft pick Mr. Crosby, finishing the arena proposal that would keep the team in Pittsburgh, and making a playoff run with a club built under the new salary cap with young talent and high-priced veterans.

But the Penguins have struggled horribly and are 7-14-6 and 13 points out of a playoff spot. And while it's unfair to measure Mr. Lemieux against Mr. Crosby, "Crosby's youth and sudden impact have amplified Mario's ago," Mr. Madden said.

"Is Mario the player he was 10 years ago? Of course not, who would be? But he's still a damn good player who brings a lot of class to this organization."

Mr. Crosby, 18, who lives with Mr. Lemieux and his wife and four children, said he is in awe of how many interests his boss, mentor, teammate and landlord juggles.

"It's amazing; you forget he's been through so much," Mr. Crosby said. "It's important for us he stays healthy. He has to feel his own body, but he's one of the greatest who has ever played, because he's been able to adjust his game and adapt.

"There's a lot there. As a pro hockey player there's enough pressure to perform. Couple that with owning a hockey team. He's obviously had to learn to balance it. It's pretty amazing.

"It's something I could never do."

Mr. Lemieux and his ownership group are seeking a licence to operate slot machines and use the revenue for the new building. Proposals are due at the end of this month, with a decision to come next year. The team's lease with Mellon Arena expires at the end of next season, and without a new arena, the team will move, likely to Kansas City.

"It's been a long process," Mr. Lemieux said. "We've been working on it for the last four years. It's frustrating at times, but I think we're getting close to finding an answer and knowing what this franchise is going to do in the future."

Eddie Johnston, the Penguins assistant general manager and former coach, said Mr. Lemieux is under "incredible pressure" on all fronts.

"He had a terrific training camp but [illness] has taken a lot out of him," Mr. Johnston said.

"The pressure takes a lot out of him. He's trying to keep our team in Pittsburgh. He's been working so hard on the rink. He plays, and then he goes across the street and talks to politicians and tries to negotiate. It takes its toll. It's tough to play with both hats on.

"And he's feeling our losses as an owner and a player. He's frustrated because our expectations were higher than what is happening. He's committed right now to playing the whole season. But he's got to pace himself, take a day off here and there. He'll be fine. You'll see him rebound."

Mr. Lemieux, who rescued the Penguins from bankruptcy in 1999, said last week he remained interested in playing the entire season, but that he might "ease off."

"A lot depends on the schedule," he said. "We've played a lot every second day. We have a few little breaks coming up and that helps a lot. You can take a day or two to recharge the battery."

Whatever he decides, he has the support of his coach. Mr. Olczyk even asks his captain how he's feeling on the bench throughout the game, to gauge his pep from shift to shift.

"Mario's no different than anyone else," Mr. Olczyk said. "With the inactivity of last year, and unfortunately he got rundown and sick. But he's a pro's pro. He's frustrated but he knows he's part of the solution and continues to believe in getting the job done."

It is part of the reason Mr. Lemieux said he might pass on playing for Canada at the Turin Olympics in February, especially if his declination would open a spot for Mr. Crosby.

"When you look at the young Canadians, there are so many playing well right now," he said. "You shouldn't be on the team just because you're a name or on what you've done in the past. It should be about the present."

And the present and all its pressures is what Mr. Lemieux has been grappling with daily.

"Sidney's the future of this franchise. I'm not the future any more," he said. "And that's something that I'm going to have to prepare myself and everybody else for."

MARIO STILL MAGNIFICENT?

POINTS: 21 [7 goals, 14 assists]

GAMES: 25/27

AVERAGE ICE TIME: 19:27

PLUS/MINUS: -17; second worst in NHL.

MILESTONES: Needs 10 goals to reach 700 for career; played in his 900th NHL game Oct. 29 v. Carolina.

TRACKING THE TOP ROOKIES

ALEXANDER OVECHKIN: Big 4-point Saturday night lifts Capitals left winger atop the pack with 16 goals and 13 assists for 29 points through 26 games.

SIDNEY CROSBY: Penguins centre snapped a 3-game pointless streak Saturday with a goal against Calgary; has 13 goals and 16 assists for 29 points in 27 games.

DION PHANEUF: Flames defenceman and top freshman blueliner hasn't had a point since Nov. 18; has 5 goals and 9 assists for 14 points in 28 games.

HENRIK LUNDQVIST: Rangers goalie third best in NHL with a 10-4 record, 2.20 goals-against-average and .926 save percentage.

Includes games through Dec. 3

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