Lemieux back in NHL after long absence
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Nearly six years after Claude Lemieux retired, he's back to pester the NHL again.
The San Jose Sharks recalled the 43-year-old forward from their AHL affiliate on Monday, adding a four-time Stanley Cup winner to a team already tied for the overall league lead.
Lemieux probably will be in San Jose's lineup Tuesday night against Vancouver. He spent the past eight weeks riding the bus and playing against the next generation in Worcester, Mass., making sure his physical skills still matched his desire to complete a comeback that's been on his mind since shortly after he retired in 2003.
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"The more I was told this was impossible, the more I wanted it," Lemieux said after his first practice with the Sharks. "I still feel that way. This is just the first step to life back in the NHL. ... I got into this with my eyes wide open, knowing that most folks out there would think that I'm out of my mind to attempt to do something like this."
Lemieux once was hockey's archetypal agitating forward, beloved by his teammates and despised by everybody else during parts of 20 seasons with five NHL clubs. He also was among the best playoff performers of his generation, with 80 postseason goals that are still ninth-most in league history.
Lemieux, who will wear No. 32 in teal, won titles with Montreal (1986), New Jersey (1995, 2000) and Colorado (1996), earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP for the Devils in 1995.
Sharks coach Todd McLellan, who's over two years younger than Lemieux, is expected to have Lemieux in uniform against the Canucks in San Jose's final game before the All-Star break -- nearly 24 years after his NHL debut in 1985.
"The excitement is probably about the same," Lemieux said, recalling that first game with the Canadiens. "The only difference is I know what to expect, and back then I didn't know what to expect. I've done this before, and it's going to help me through the process. I worked very hard to get to where I'm at today. It's what I wanted, a chance to live this dream again, and it's great to be here."
Lemieux's career petered out after 32 games and seven playoff appearances with the Dallas Stars in 2003. He lived in Phoenix after his retirement, dabbling in real estate investment, appearing on a reality show and briefly serving as president of the ECHL's Phoenix Roadrunners.
But a comeback already was on his mind when he played briefly in Switzerland in 2004 before the league's lockout season. After nearly starting a return in 2007, he got his wife's approval to try it last fall.
"With the lockout, I thought I'd missed my opportunity, but I missed being out there," Lemieux said. "I missed the camaraderie and the chance to do something you love. To know that you've got to get up in the morning and be some place, and you've got a job to do ... it's just the best life. I'm very thankful that I can do this again."
Sharks general manager Doug Wilson is no stranger to reclamation projects after adding Jeremy Roenick and Sandis Ozolinsh to his club last season. He also provided a chance to Lemieux, who joined the Worcester Sharks in late November and signed a two-way contract in late December.
With Wilson monitoring every shift on television, Lemieux had three goals and eight assists in 23 games with Worcester, racking up 24 penalty minutes and a plus-2 rating.
"Historically, people that can come back and help you later in their careers usually have similar attributes," Wilson said. "A love for the game, a high level of intelligence, and ... being genetically gifted. He's gifted, and he's gone and put the work and time and energy in. He's not been given anything by us. If anything, we've given him a couple of [reasons] to say it's not been worth it."
Lemieux won't be the oldest player in the NHL, not with Detroit defenseman Chris Chelios turning 47 later this month. But his comeback is even more remarkable because of his lengthy absence from the game.
Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau played with Lemieux during parts of six seasons with the Canadiens in the 1980s.
"I'm very surprised, even shocked," Carbonneau said after the Canadiens' practice Monday. "Chris Chelios is 46 years old, but the fact that Claude stopped playing three or four years ago, it shows the kind of character he has. I'm happy for him. When I first heard about it, I didn't think it would be possible, but it just goes to show that nothing is impossible."
Although the Sharks led the overall NHL standings with 71 points entering Monday's games, their fourth line hasn't been impressive or productive since Roenick was sidelined last month with a shoulder injury. If Lemieux sticks and Roenick returns soon, the Sharks could match Roenick and Lemieux with enforcer Jody Shelley on a line that would be among the NHL's most entertaining, if no longer its most talented.
"Claude deserved it, he earned it, and I really can't stress it enough that the guys down in Worcester are happy for him," Wilson said. "They know he put in the work. He's happy to be here, it's that simple."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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