Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The only time a major sport will be mentioned here

Unless the New York Rangers win a Stanley Cup again in my lifetime...

Pittsburgh Penguins superstar center Mario Lemieux is hanging it up for the second time, after coming out of retirement in 2000. Maybe I'm a little bitter as a Ranger fan who has seen his team depantsed for decades by the man, but I can't get weepie-rific about this. It can be said (by me) of Lemieux that he had the best hands -- the best skill -- of any man to ever play in this league. He had the most accurate pass and shot of the puck, ever. Ever -- Gretzky may have had brain-power, Clarke may have had muscle, Messier may have had heart, Hull may have had velocity, but no one had the sheer skill of Lemieux.

He could have been the greatest of all time -- but he isn't. Far from it. He was great, but never the best -- even though it was in his power to be. He never looked like he had the hunger for the game like Gretz, and Mess, and Trots, and Clarkie. Lemieux never applied 100% of his faculties to the game, be it because of injury, disease, hardship (and he's had plenty of each) or simply because it's not in his character. Lemieux was a taciturn leader, not given to speeches and big bursts of personality. His English is quietly accented with his native French, and his speeches and answers never contained fire or enthusiasm -- just soft, lilting tones from a withdrawing, shy man from Montreal.

Of course, there's what seems apparent from the viewer's vantage-point and what is apparent from a colleague's vantage-point. I'm not sure you'll ever hear too many past teammates of Lemieux's acclaiming his leadership brand, and for the record, they won't ever have to. Lemieux singlehandedly carried two good Pittsburgh teams to Stanley Cup wins, legendary exploits unto themselves. But a likely third Cup, the 1993 championship, eluded him and his team as they were stymied by the inferior upstart Islanders. The next few years, his Pens were good -- good enough to get to the third round a few times -- but were never a serious threat for the Cup.

Lemieux will be remembered for his prodigious skill -- but also, for his lack of full commitment to the game.