<
>

Mario plans to play next season

PITTSBURGH -- Mario Lemieux will miss the rest of the season
after hip surgery next week, but he doesn't plan to retire.

The six-time NHL scoring leader and two-time Stanley Cup
champion hasn't played for the Pittsburgh Penguins since injuring
his left hip Nov. 1 against Boston.

Lemieux has since tried therapy and rehabilitation, but an MRI
test performed Tuesday showed no improvement. Lemieux, who also
owns the last-place Penguins, will have arthroscopic surgery Jan.
13.

"I was optimistic that the injury would heal, and I was hoping
to get back in the lineup," Lemieux said. "It is disappointing
that I won't have a chance to return to the ice this season, but I
look forward to coming back next year."

According to Penguins team doctor Charles Burke, Lemieux is
experiencing ongoing pain because of tendinitis in his left hip
flexor muscle. The surgery will remove damaged labrum, the
ligament-like cartilage that contains nerves and lines the hip
socket, and repair a tendon.

This is the third time in as many seasons Lemieux had been
sidelined by injury, and one of a score of such layoffs in his
remarkable but oft-interrupted career that saw him sit out the
1994-95 season and retire for 44 months.

Lemieux, 38, missed most of the 2001-02 season with a right hip
injury that also required surgery. Lemieux had that operation
shortly before helping Canada win its first Olympic hockey gold
medal in 50 years.

He returned to lead the NHL in scoring for most of the 2002-03
season, only to finish eighth with 91 points in 67 games after
sitting out nearly a month with a sore groin. He did not score a
goal in his final nine games, following a series of late-season
trades that left him with inexperienced and far less talented
linemates.

This season, Lemieux injured his left hip three days after
becoming only the sixth player in NHL history to reach the
1,700-point mark. He had one goal and eight assists in 10 games and
had an eight-game scoring streak just before getting injured.

The Hall of Famer said in a statement released by the team that
his ability to bounce back quickly from the right hip operation is
one reason why he plans to play again.

"The encouraging thing for me is that the surgery in 2001 was
successful, and I have had no problems since then with my right
hip," Lemieux said.

Lemieux's comments about his health were his first since
mid-November, when he began declining requests to talk about his
condition. He has since regularly attended practice to undergo
conditioning drills and talk to his teammates, but never spoke to
reporters.

Lemieux has had a series of medical problems during his
on-and-off 20-year career, including two long bouts with back pain
that required operations in the early 1990s -- Before an after the
Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992.

His most formidable medical challenge was and a diagnosis of
Hodgkin's disease -- cancer of the lymph nodes -- in 1993. He
returned after less than a month's time off for radiation
treatments to win the NHL scoring title.

Lemieux's latest setback comes with the Penguins mired in last
place in the overall NHL standings, a season after they were 29th
in the 30-team league. Without Lemieux, their biggest drawing card,
the team's attendance has plunged by about 3,000 per game, to its
lowest levels since before the team drafted Lemieux in 1984.

With no real scoring threats and a threadbare, mostly young
lineup, the Penguins are unlikely to dramatically improve their
record without Lemieux.

Lemieux was injured early in the season despite undergoing what
was, by far, the most strenuous offseason conditioning program of
his retirement-interrupted career. He retired after the 1996-97
season, but unexpectedly began playing again in December 2000 and
led the Penguins to the Eastern Conference finals that season.

"We'd been hoping to get him back in the lineup, but I know
he's been frustrated by the lack of improvement," coach Eddie
Olczyk said. "It's very unfortunate, because he worked so hard in
the summer and was in such tremendous shape to start the year. He
was looking forward to having a great season."