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Lemieux won't play for Canadian Olympic hockey team

PITTSBURGH -- Penguins owner-captain Mario Lemieux won't play for Canada in the Winter Olympics following his latest medical scare, and he's got what he considers the perfect replacement in mind: Pittsburgh rookie star Sidney Crosby.

Lemieux, talking publicly Saturday for the first time since being hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat last week, told Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky several days ago he wouldn't play in the Turin Olympics in February.

"With the way I have been playing so far and with the young guys we have coming up in Canada, I think the best thing to do is to go with the young guys, the young legs," said Lemieux, who singled out Crosby, Carolina's Eric Staal and Ottawa's Jason Spezza as players who should be chosen.

Gretzky was in Pittsburgh on Saturday -- not only to watch Crosby, the 18-year-old forward and No. 1 draft pick who is averaging more than a point a game, but also to talk to Lemieux. The Phoenix Coyotes coach traveled to several NHL cities during a break in the schedule to scout players.

"When I got the call the other day, I was disappointed for Mario. I was disappointed for the people of Canada," Gretzky said. "His personal health is more important than a hockey tournament."

The 40-year-old Lemieux was debating whether to reprise his 2002 role as Team Canada's captain even before rushing to the hospital Wednesday with a rapid heartbeat. After being monitored for nearly a day, he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a condition commonly treated with medication that is not expected to end his career or alter his life.

Making an unexpected visit Saturday to the Penguins' game-day practice, Lemieux said he hopes to be back on the ice within a week and doesn't expect to be out of the Penguins' lineup long.

Lemieux called Wednesday's practice-day episode in which he became lightheaded and his heart began racing "scary," and he was relieved to learn his problem is fairly common.

"There are a lot of people who have it and they are able to regulate it with medication. So, from talking to the doctors and a lot of people who have it, I wouldn't think it's going to have an impact on my life," Lemieux said.

Lemieux's heart scare was the latest in a series of medical problems for the Hall of Famer and No. 7 NHL career scorer. He survived a bout with cancer in 1993 that occurred during one of his best seasons, when he won a scoring title despite being out a month for Hodgkin's disease treatments. He also missed about two-thirds of the Penguins' 1990-91 Stanley Cup championship season after developing a rare bone disease following back surgery.

This latest problem frightened Lemieux because the bursts of rapid heartbeat would occur randomly, and doctors could not determine their cause or prescribe any medication until he could be monitored for an extended period. When he missed two games in a six-day span, team officials said he had the stomach flu.

"It's been on and off all summer, training camp. The most recent one was in Tampa, where it lasted over a day, day and a half," Lemieux said. "This recent one was over a day. This was not the first time and we just didn't know what it was at the time, but we were able to catch it the last time I went to the hospital right away."

Lemieux has another stress test scheduled Monday, partly so doctors can determine the proper dosage of his medication. Once that occurs, Lemieux expects to resume practicing and playing fairly quickly.

"I am feeling pretty good, actually," said Lemieux, who has seven goals and 14 assists in 25 games but admittedly has not played up to his own standards. "I have been feeling pretty good the last couple of days with the medication I am taking now. Hopefully, it's just going to get better from now on."

Lemieux isn't blaming his condition for his below-average production but said, "The symptoms are fatigue and sluggishness all the time, which I was on the ice, and not being able to have any jump."

In 2002, Lemieux captained the first Canadian team to win the Olympic hockey gold medal in 50 years despite a serious hip injury that allowed him to play only one more NHL game that season. He considered that a once-in-a-lifetime experience and said earlier this season he didn't want to be picked for these Olympics merely on his name.

"It was a great experience and I would've loved to be there this year, but considering my play so far, the way I've been feeling and some of the young guys we have for Team Canada, I think it's much better to go that route," Lemieux said.

However, Gretzky said having Lemieux around -- even a Lemieux far removed from his 199-point season of 1988-89 -- would have been a major asset for Canada.

"You don't replace Mario. He takes so much pressure off players in the locker room. People don't realize that unless you're one of the players," Gretzky said.

Lemieux is the second Team Canada veteran in less than a week to withdraw his name. Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, also 40, pulled out Tuesday. Canada's final 23-man roster will announced after a Dec. 21 meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia.

With Lemieux and Yzerman out, Colorado center Joe Sakic is a likely choice to be Canada's captain.