Mario preparing to hand off legacy?

When Mario Lemieux walks past his guest bedroom, knowing that the next savior of the Pittsburgh Penguins may be dozing inside, he must pause and remember his own naps in that strange house in Pittsburgh 19 years ago with the unfamiliar language and the future so huge and near at hand and marvel at the symmetry of it all.

The circle unbroken.

Or maybe he just thinks, "Gee, I hope Marc-Andre Fleury doesn't have any plans tonight so we can leave the kids with him and get some dinner."

"I've been in the same situation when I was 18 as a young French-Canadian coming to Pittsburgh. It's tough to adjust at first," Lemieux told reporters on the eve of the Penguins' 37th season and shortly before Fleury left Pittsburgh to discuss his contract situation with his agents. "Him living with us and speaking French and having a chance to see people during the day, we thought that would help him out."

Fleury, of course, is the first-overall pick of June's draft and according to Lemieux one of the finest young goaltenders he's ever seen.

"He's one of the best that I've seen for a long time in a young goalie. He's a hard worker. He's very quick from side to side and getting up and down," Lemieux said, sounding for all the world like an owner, which of course he is. "He deserves a chance to play in the NHL this season."

Asked whether the young goaltender would then have to pay rent, the owner answered quickly.

"Absolutely," Lemieux said. "He's got to look after the kids. That's what he did last night."

There is a polished ease about the man who has almost 1,700 points in less than 900 NHL games. He is neither overstated nor evasive but merely comfortable in sharing what he feels is important to share.

He would like to play 70 games, maybe more.

He would love to play in next summer's World Cup of Hockey.

If he's healthy, who knows?

"I've said all along I'd like to play as long as I'm healthy and feeling good," Lemieux says. "Obviously it's a year-by-year thing."

But it's obvious that at the end of last year his ailing back and the financial woes that continue to beset his beloved Penguins give Lemieux pause.

He said he waited several months before making the decision to come back so as not to be too hasty. Now, he says, he feels better than he has in a long time.

"Absolutely. I hurt my back last summer and never really got back to 100 percent until three or four months," he said.

How long Lemieux remains pain-free is unknown. Heading into the regular season, Lemieux will have played only one exhibition game so that specter of injury will always loom.

Given the uncertainty over the end of the collective bargaining agreement a year from now, one has to figure this will likely be it for Lemieux.

When the man dubbed The Magnificent One retired the first time after winning his fifth NHL scoring title at the end of the 1997 season, it seemed he left more with a sigh of relief than a sigh of regret. His back was ailing, there was his battle with cancer and, finally, his unhappiness with the game itself.

When he returned in December of 2000, skeptics wondered if it was simply about trying to recoup the millions he was owed by a troubled Penguins franchise he'd rescued from bankruptcy. But even the harshest critic was moved at the stirring sight of Lemieux's fabled No. 66 being slowly lowered from the rafters at Mellon Arena and folded into a coffin-like box that night came back. On the ice, he was magical, performing at a level that defied logic, scoring 76 points in 43 games and leading the Penguins to an improbable berth in the Eastern Conference final.

Injuries limited Lemieux to only 24 games in 2001-02 but the magic continued with a gold medal victory for Lemieux and Canada at the Salt Lake City Olympics. He was, on a team chockablock with leaders, captains and legends, the team's obvious choice for captain. And if it had ended there, who could have blamed Lemieux?

Instead, he returned last season even though the Penguins' financial situation worsened and popular veterans Robert Lang and Alexei Kovalev followed Jaromir Jagr and Darius Kasparaitis in being traded away to cut payroll.

This season, the Penguins will almost certainly miss the playoffs for the third straight year, introducing another element of symmetry to the season, harkening back to Lemieux's rookie year when he joined a Pittsburgh team that would finish second-last in the NHL.

"It's never easy when you're rebuilding," Lemieux acknowledged.

Yet he seems upbeat about the season, his role on the team.

"Just having a chance to play again and play with the young guys that we have. We feel that we have some young players that are going to be pretty good," Lemieux said. "I missed the game for 3 1/2 years. I know what it felt like."

If this is, indeed the last go-round for Lemieux, it will mark not just he passing of a great player, perhaps the greatest behind Gretzky ever to play.

It will mark the passing of the next greatest ambassador for the game.

It is a term that is hard to define but one which did not apply to Lemieux during the first phase of his career. There was the language issue and there was Gretzky in his prime to lessen the burden. And the game was in its heyday with high-scoring games and personalities to match.

When Lemieux returned, Gretzky was gone and players like Brett Hull had followed Lemieux as one of the game's harshest critics.

Surprisingly, Lemieux embraced his role as the face of the game, the league. He has not stopped.

"I think he did a phenomenal job as an ambassador for the NHL in the last three or four years," said former coach Pierre McGuire, now one of the top analysts in the game with The Sports Network in Canada.

McGuire feels it's an issue of maturity for Lemieux. He missed the game and when he returned understood his role was different.

"He's a very smart guy," McGuire said. "He's a smart businessman who owned a huge product and was trying to save that product."

There are other NHL stars for whom this season could be, will likely be, a swan song.

All will be missed in their own way.

Lemieux's former teammate, Ron Francis, in his 23rd NHL season, is one of the classiest, understated superstars the game has known and has been a defining figure in Hartford/Carolina.

Dave Andreychuk will leave the game as the NHL's most proficient power-play specialist ever and perhaps the most important figure in the renaissance of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Mark Messier will finish his career second only to his longtime friend Gretzky in scoring and the ultimate leadership symbol.
In a city where it was all about winning, Mark Messier was the New York Rangers in their historic run to the Cup in 1994.

But none will create the void that will exist when Lemieux finally turns in his stick for his business suit and golf clubs for the last time.

Even with a struggling team, the Penguins remain one of the top road draws in the NHL along with Detroit and the Rangers.

It should be so once more, perhaps one last time, thanks to No. 66.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.