Lemieux's second stint made career more complete

Updated: January 24, 2006, 7:26 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

We were there when Mario Lemieux was rushed into the Hockey Hall of Fame back in November 1997, his successes seeming to hang on his shoulders like an ill-fitting coat, as though he knew somehow he had unfinished business.

And we were there, skeptical, when Lemieux announced on Dec. 11, 2000, that he was not done after all, that he believed there was still some magic in the old No. 66.

Mario Lemieux
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMario Lemieux's last game was Dec. 16, 2005, against the Buffalo Sabres.

And we were there again, all skepticism quickly erased, that Dec. 27 when Lemieux's gold and black jersey descended specterlike from the rafters of rickety old Mellon Arena and gently folded into a box moments before Lemieux stepped back onto the ice and notched his first of three points 33 seconds into the game.

So maybe it wasn't just about the money but about something deeper and much less tangible.

The Penguins, behind their captain, rolled to the Eastern Conference finals that spring. The following winter, he captained the Canadian team to the country's first Olympic gold in 50 years and reprised the role two years later as Canada rolled undefeated to a World Cup of Hockey championship.

On Tuesday afternoon, Lemieux closed the circle and finished the picture, walking away from the game once more, this time for good, he said. And what is clear is that there is a natural symmetry to this Lemieux retirement.

There will be a temptation to simply add Lemieux's name to a list of elite players who might be considered victims of the lockout and the new, up-tempo NHL.

Mark Messier, Scott Stevens, Al MacInnis and Vincent Damphousse all retired before the season started. Brett Hull retired early in the season. Dave Andreychuk recently was waived by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

And to be sure, Lemieux was rarely a factor this season. Long before heart problems surfaced (he said Tuesday that he is contemplating having surgery in the next month or so), Lemieux seemed at times out of place, out of sync. He scored 22 points in 26 games and was a whopping minus-16.

"If I could play this game at a decent level, I would come back and play, but I've not been able to do that thus far this year. I don't see it getting any better as time goes on," Lemieux said. "And this is really the new NHL, and it's built on speed and young guys; you can see how many young guys are dominating, and it's great to see. It hasn't happened in a lot of years. If I could still play this game, I'd be back on the ice."

For those who like their departures with a dose of irony, Lemieux's retirement Part II has a healthy portion. After years of Lemieux complaining that the game's skill players were being dragged down by the muckers and plodders, the NHL has become what he wanted, just a little late for Lemieux to fully enjoy.

But Lemieux has earned the right to walk out of the NHL on his own terms. Indeed, he always has set his own clock.

In 1997, tired of fighting a chronic back problem and Hodgkin's disease and dissatisfied with the state of the game, Lemieux took his leave.

At the time, he said he thought he was gone for good, and the hockey powers believed it to be so, rushing him into the Hall of Fame that November, bypassing the normal three-year waiting period.

When Lemieux returned in December 2000, a year after leading an ownership group that bought the team out of bankruptcy, many believed it was merely a dollars-and-cents move, an effort to make sure he got his money out of the team.

It turned out to be about more bedrock issues, like family and pride and a burning desire to compete, issues people believed did not motivate the sometimes dispassionate Lemieux.

Watching Lemieux collect an incredible 76 points in 43 games during the last half of the 2000-2001 season was a perpetual exercise in suspension of disbelief, as though his very presence on the ice defied the laws of time, space and nature.

It didn't last, but even when injuries once again began to take their toll, Lemieux surprised many with the breadth of his passion for the game.

After accepting the captaincy of Canada's Olympic team, a hobbled Lemieux essentially sacrificed his entire NHL season to take part in the Salt Lake City Games. Penguins fans were understandably upset that Lemieux played only a handful of games after the Olympics, but his presence on Team Canada was instrumental to the gold-medal win and redefined his profile in Canada, where he always had existed in Wayne Gretzky's shadow. He was no longer the uncomfortable French Canadian teen who went off to save the Steeltown team but rather a player who could wrap himself in the flag even if it meant tremendous personal sacrifice.

Off the ice in recent months, Lemieux once again has been a surprise, tirelessly and eloquently campaigning for the funds to build a new arena that is crucial to the team's continued existence in Pittsburgh. The team is now for sale, and Lemieux said he will help shepherd the franchise through to a new ownership group. Beyond that? Who knows?

The team, in spite of its woeful state, has a handful of bright young stars led by Lemieux's houseguest Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury.

The Penguins face a long climb back to respectability. But so, too, did the Pens back in 1984, when the shy Francophone named Mario Lemieux arrived in the city.

On Tuesday, Lemieux closed the door to the dressing room one last time, again revealing a depth of emotion that was both surprising and gratifying.

"That's always the toughest part. Being around the dressing room with the guys, being able to play this game. So that's going to be a challenge, but I think I'm ready for it," he said, pausing to keep his emotions in check.

"All I can say for the young players is enjoy every moment of it," Lemieux went on, once again pausing for a long moment. "Just enjoy every moment of it. Your career goes by very quickly. And it's a great game and you guys are all very special to be in the NHL, very privileged, so enjoy every minute of it."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.