I really hate seeing great players retire. We all do, no matter the sport. But the NHL has lost some of the all-time best this season. Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens, to name a few. Now, Mario Lemieux.
There was so much optimism for the Pittsburgh Penguins before the start of the season. The team drafted Sidney Crosby and signed veteran free agents such as Sergei Gonchar and John LeClair. The new rules, something Lemieux fought long and hard for, would benefit his game. The fact that Mario was even coming back was the icing on the cake. Everyone thought the Pens would be a playoff team.
Unfortunately, outside of Crosby's performance, nothing has worked out right in Pittsburgh. But don't read too much into that regarding Lemieux's second stint in the NHL. Overall, his return was definitely a success. I was in Pittsburgh the night he came back in December 2000, and when you watched him then, he was as good as ever.
So many of us thought his first retirement at age 34 was too soon. He was in the prime of his life. If he wasn't healthy back then, he would not have come back. Now that he's 40, and the game is much faster under the new rules, it was the right time for Mario to retire, but I certainly wish it weren't. I love watching him play. But given his health issues and the state of the franchise, would his playing at this point help the team? No.
Now, the argument will resurface: Is Super Mario the best ever? It's a great argument, but overall, I still believe Wayne Gretzky was the best player to ever play in the NHL. You can't argue against Wayne's numbers and his longevity. Longevity is part of what makes a player great, and it's an unfair argument to say "what if Lemieux was healthy?"
But I will say this: Mario Lemieux was the most physically gifted person to play in the league. His size (6-foot-4, 230 pounds), his speed, his hands, the way he saw the ice -- that physical combination will be very difficult to match. No big man has been able to do the things Mario could do.
As for the future, Lemieux will still be a part of the franchise, doing everything he can to keep the team in Pittsburgh. Bottom line: He's the only reason there is still a team in Pittsburgh. No one has given more to Pittsburgh. They owe him.
So, when you think of Lemieux, think of him as that big physical, presence, think of him as Pittsburgh's savior. Think of the Canadian, skating up the ice with Wayne Gretzky in the 1987 Canada Cup, Lemieux driving up the middle, taking a perfect pass from Gretzky on a two-on-one and scoring the winner against Russia.
Think of Mario as one of the greatest. I'll miss watching him.
Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN.