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Thursday, December 7, 2000
Mario leaves game on his terms

By Darren Smith
SportsTicker

Editor's Note: Below is a republished account of Mario Lemieux's last game in the NHL – April 26, 1997, Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

PHILADELPHIA – In the end, Mario Lemieux left hockey for the same reason other great athletes have given up their sports.

Lemieux played his final game Saturday night, exiting when his Pittsburgh Penguins were eliminated from the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in five games by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Some would say Lemieux is leaving at the top of his game. He led the NHL in scoring for the sixth time, was one of only four 50-goal scorers and topped the 100-point mark for the 10th time in 12 full seasons.

But Lemieux didn't see it that way. He knew it was time to go. The battle with Hodgkin's disease and the persistent back pain had exacted a toll.

"It was awful. I didn't have my legs. I didn't have any strength, and I just ran out of gas the last month of the season," he said. "It really showed the way I've been playing and that's something I don't want to have to go through again. That's part of the reason why I'm retiring.

"I have mixed emotions about tonight," Lemieux continued. "After all, this is a game I've been playing since I was 3 years old. It's been a part of me as far as I can remember. But on the other side of it, not being able to play the way I once played is very frustrating. That's something I can't accept from myself and for my family and for my friends to see me like this."

Flyers defenseman Paul Coffey, who spent parts of five seasons with Lemieux in Pittsburgh, said he didn't know what to say when he met his former teammate in the post-series handshake line.

"The only thing I asked him was, 'Are you happy?' " Coffey said. "He said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'That's great because you deserve to be happy.' "

Lemieux was the reluctant superstar -- gifted on the ice, but unwilling to be a spokesman off it.

Five years ago, Lemieux called the NHL "a garage league" because officials were not calling the kinds of penalties that would free the game's most talented stars to play the game the way it was meant to be played. He repeated that mantra Saturday.

"There are a lot of great players in this league. If they can apply the rules a little bit and let some of the greatest athletes in the world go out and be great, this could be the greatest game in the world," Lemieux said. "And hopefully, they can open their eyes a little bit and see that they have a lot of talent in this league. Hopefully, they'll do the right thing and open the game up."

Some fans resent Lemieux because he complained, because he wasn't Wayne Gretzky. In some ways, Lemieux was Ted Williams to Gretzky's Joe DiMaggio. Williams feuded with the press and never was the fan favorite DiMaggio was until the end of his career. Williams hit .401 in 1941, but lost the American League MVP award to DiMaggio. Nearly 50 years later, in 1988-89, Lemieux had the finest season of his career -- 85 goals, 114 assists and 199 points -- yet finished second behind Gretzky in voting for the Hart Trophy.

"Did Mario get his due? I know he did amongst the players," Coffey said."Everybody knows how great he is."

Added Flyers All-Star center Eric Lindros, "He's the biggest of the big men with the skill. There is no one better -- no one better with the puck, no one better as far as being creative with the puck.

Lindros says Lemieux is not being truthful when he says he's lost something.

"He talks about losing a stride here or there over the last couple of years. I think his nose is growing; he's still got it. It's too bad he's leaving the game."

Penguins teammate Ron Francis is recognized as one of the finest playmakers in the NHL. Yet even he is amazed by what Lemieux can do.

"He did things on the ice that 95 percent of us in this league only dream of doing. And to do it with the back pain, with the Hodgkin's disease and be able to watch him endure all that makes him something special."

Jaromir Jagr, who combined with Lemieux to form one of the NHL's most deadly one-two punches, said he valued his teammate as a teacher.

"You learn a lot from him, not only in games but in practice as well. You go to school, you've got a great teacher, and you learn to do a lot of things on the ice. And that's what he was for me," Jagr said. "It's going to be tough next year. Whatever respect we had around the league was because of him. And not having him on the ice, we'll lose a lot of that respect."

Lemieux left the game the same way he entered.

On Oct. 11, 1984, he scored a goal on his first shot during his first shift in the NHL. A Calder Trophy, two Stanley Cups, a Canada Cup, three Hart Trophies, six Art Ross Trophies and two Conn Smythe Trophies followed. In his final game, the eight-time All-Star got a goal and an assist.

Fans at Philadelphia's normally unfriendly CoreStates Center showered him with the same kind of warm reception he received in venues like New York, Boston and his native Montreal.

"It was great. These are the fans that I came back to from my first cancer treatment to play my first game. They did the same thing four years ago. I have nothing but great memories from Flyers' fans. They're great fans who appreciate you for what you're trying to do out there," Lemieux said.

"The last few weeks of the season and the playoffs, once I announced I was retiring, everybody was my friend on the road. Maybe I should've done that earlier in the season."

Lemieux didn't hesitate when asked how he wants to be remembered.

"As a winner," he said, "as someone who started with the worst team in the NHL back in 1984 and was able to win a Stanley Cup seven years later. This was a big challenge for me. To be able to do that is something I am very proud of and something I can take with me and cherish for a long, long time."

As for Lemieux's future, it will include a lot of golf and absolutely no hockey, not even the 1998 Olympics.

"I'm going to take a year off and reassess my life and take care of my kids. I'll go from there," he said. "I don't anticipate staying with the team or any team in the NHL. I've been around for 13 years. I've had a great run, but I think it's time for me to get away from hockey a little bit."