Lemieux in peak condition
OTTAWA -- He was the first player to emerge and take the ice at the University of Ottawa on the first day of Team Canada's training camp, looking stunningly trim.
Now the question is, who will Lemieux intimidate the most?
"To be on the same ice surface as Mario is an honor, and to see No. 66 at center on your line can be intimidating," said Martin St. Louis, the NHL's latest winner of the Hart Trophy and scoring title.
If anybody has reason to have confidence, it should be St. Louis.
But being in the presence of Lemieux, a regal talent and idol to many of the players on a suddenly youthful Team Canada, will take some getting used to for St. Louis and Tampa Bay Lightning teammate Brad Richards, who are flanking Lemieux on a line so far. Keep in mind the line combinations were not finalized in Salt Lake until three games into the Olympic tournament.
"I'm not used to something like this happening, and I was kind of surprised when I saw the line combinations," said St. Louis. "I remember seeing him in 1987 with Wayne Gretzky, and I kind of had to pinch myself to make sure it was really happening.
"But that's why it's good to have a training camp so we can learn about each other."
Lemieux is being asked once again to lead Canada to a place most Canadians believe is theirs by divine right: the summit of hockey.
Lemieux did it in 2002 as the Canadians won Olympic gold in Salt Lake City for the first time in 50 years. Lemieux, the captain then as he is now, was gimpy and led Canada more with his presence than production.
His most remarkable play in that tournament might have been one in which he avoided touching the puck in the gold medal game against the Americans, allowing it to slide to Paul Kariya, who scored from a better shooting angle. It was a moment of inspired genius, yet another example of Lemieux possessing that rare ability to see and understand on a plateau unreachable for all but a few.
Lemieux, limited by hip problems to just 10 games last year, remains the greatest talent in the game when he's healthy. He trained well during the summer, including four one-week trips to Venice, Calif., to work with personal trainer T.R. Goodman. Lemieux even threw in a skate with Team Canada executive director Gretzky.
Lemieux has shed about a dozen pounds.
"No (french) fries," he said.
"He looks sleek," said Team Canada head coach Pat Quinn.
"I don't anticipate any problems," said Lemieux. "I've pushed myself a bit and everything feels fine. Both hips and my back are in good shape."
But how are his shoulders? He will be asked to lift a team that has but 10 holdovers from the Salt Lake team and now features 11 players 25 years old or younger.
Lemieux has come full circle. In 1987, he was the fresh-faced 21-year-old on the rise, shown how to win by Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey at the Canada Cup.
|“||I have to be a leader on and off the ice. That's what I've tried to do the last 10 years of my career and at the Olympics. ”|
|— Mario Lemieux|
"I was in the same boat in 1987, playing with Gretzky and guys like that," said Lemieux. "It's important that the veterans spend a lot of time with the young guys and make them feel a part of the team. In 1987, I learned what it takes to win, a lot of hard work and dedication, just to see guys like Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey work so hard in practice.
"I have to be a leader on and off the ice. That's what I've tried to do the last 10 years of my career and at the Olympics."
Quinn opted to give the Lemieux line the night off Monday when Team Canada opened its exhibition schedule with a 3-1 loss to the Americans in Columbus. Team Canada has a rematch with the Americans Wednesday at the Corel Centre.
Team Canada concludes its exhibition schedule Saturday night against Slovakia. If Lemieux is healthy and playing the way he can, he will give Canada a huge edge in this tournament, although the Canadians have had to fill for the loss of defensive stalwarts Chris Pronger and Rob Blake, both lost to injury.
There is no player bigger -- or with a bigger aura -- than Lemieux. Nobody in the game today is capable of reaching out and wrapping their arms around a game the way Lemieux can when his health allows.
"One guy doesn't win the tournament," said Gretzky. "We won't put all the pressure on Mario, but you also realize he's the best."
Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.