A condensed version of Dan Patrick's interview with Pittsburgh Penguins player/owner Mario Lemieux appears in the Feb. 19 edition of ESPN the Magazine.
|Penguins center/owner Mario Lemieux confirmed that he will play at least through next season, although he's still negotiating a deal with himself.|
Dan Patrick: What's the biggest reason you left the game? Is it a single reason?
Mario Lemieux: No, not really. I think it was a combination of where the game was going, the direction of the game. I didn't like the way the game was being played. Of course, physically and mentally, I was pretty much depleted. I've gone through back surgery a couple times, and of course, my radiation treatments for six weeks got me to the point where I was not able to play at the level that I was accustomed to.
DP: Biggest reason why you came back.
ML: Well, I think just a desire to come back and be a part of the game again. I feel that the game has changed the last two or three years since I left, and the game is a lot better than it was. I think the game has opened up, and that's why I decided to come back and try to be a part of it. Of course, my family has been a big reason for me to come back, especially my son who loves the game of hockey -- he was a big reason for me coming back.
DP: How many goals did you score when your son was born?
ML: The day after, I scored five goals against St. Louis.
DP: Did you save one of the pucks for him?
ML: I don't think I did. I know I saved a stick for him, but that's pretty much what I saved from that game.
DP: So the fact that your son wanted to see dad play probably weighed on you just a little bit?
ML: I think so. I think that the way he loves the game -- he gets up in the morning and he's got his stick and he plays all day -- goes to preschool, then he comes back and plays until he goes to bed. So he's just a kid that loves the game, and I thought that it would be neat for him to see daddy play before it's too late. I'm only 35, and I felt that the time was right to try to come back and have a chance for him to see me play.
DP: Who was your son's favorite player when you were the owner?
ML: It was Jaromir Jagr.
DP: What did Jagr think about that?
ML: Oh, he thought it was great. You know, I used to take my son to all the home games, and after the games we used to go down in the dressing room, and he would go right to Jagr and, you know, ask for his stick or puck, or something like that for an autograph.
DP: Did he want to know if you were as good as Jagr when you played?
ML: Well, he didn't realize. He's only 4 years old, so I don't think he realized, you know, that I played so many years. Of course, we watch tapes here from the Stanley Cup years, but I don't think he realized how many years I played.
DP: Do your daughters have favorite hockey players? Do they follow the sport?
ML: Yeah, they do and they love Jagr, obviously. You know, he's the best player in the world, and he's the best player on the team and...
DP: Yeah, but your girls would like cute guys, wouldn't they?
ML: He's kind of cute [laughs].
DP: But do you allow them to like players from other teams?
ML: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. You know, they know most of our players on the team. I don't think they follow the other teams too much, but they love all the guys that we have here in Pittsburgh.
DP: When are you an owner now and when are you a player?
ML: Once I'm at the arena with the guys in the dressing room, and in the bus, and on the plane, I'm a player. And I sit in the back with the players and I play cards and try to take their money. ... Of course, sometimes in the afternoon I go to the office when we have important meetings with a lot of different people here in Pittsburgh, and I do both.
DP: Did you find that the players were a bit guarded when you first came back? I know you've been around the team, but I can't help but think they would probably say things to you, the player, they would never say to you, the owner.
ML: No, I think it was more the young guys, you know, the guys who are 20, 21 years old who really didn't know me from before. But the veterans, the guys I played with and played against in the league for so many years, really, the adjustment has been great -- because of the fact that I've been around the team for the last two years since I bought the team, on a daily basis, really, and on road trips. So I've been spending a lot of time the last couple of years with the players, and just the fact that I'm back playing the game really hasn't changed my relationship with the players.
DP: Did anybody try to talk you out of coming back?
ML: No, not really. Everybody I talked to -- from my friends to my family and some of the players -- really gave me a lot of support from the start. And that certainly made me feel good about trying to come back and be one of the best again.
DP: Do you think you can be the best player in the game again?
ML: I think so. I think that with a lot of hard work and dedication, I feel that I could be the best in the world. I'm still only 35 years old ... I have a fresh start physically and mentally, and I feel that I can achieve my goal to be the best again.
DP: Do you find players who come up to you now ... who want an autograph or something from you?
ML: Yeah, it happens quite a bit. The first few games that we played against some of the teams, the young guys, you know, want a stick sign or photo sign, and I think that they respect what I have achieved throughout my career.
DP: But isn't that strange? They want an autograph and then you have to play against them?
ML: Then they beat me up on the ice. That's a little strange.
DP: Hockey idol growing up?
ML: It was Guy LaFleur. Guy was the best in the world for many, many years in Montreal, and having grown up in Montreal and with the teams that they had, Guy LaFleur was somebody that I looked up to. And I had a chance to meet him when I was 12 or 13 years old -- it was a great day in my life.
DP: Yeah, but the nickname -- what was it, "The Flower?"
ML: "The Flower," yeah.
DP: Yeah, see, that doesn't...
ML: It's a little soft.
DP: Yeah, that doesn't strike fear, you know?
ML: But no, he was awesome. As you know, he was the best player in the world, and to be able to meet him at such a young age was a thrill for me.
DP: Have you heard from Gretzky? Does he want to come out of retirement now?
ML: If I keep scoring these goals, he might have to.
DP: Because you're making it look easy.
ML: Trust me, it's not easy. My body's feeling it a little bit. But one good thing, my back is in good shape, and that's my main concern. I know that my legs are going to take awhile to get back to where I was a few years ago, but as long as my back is solid, I feel that I can play many years.
DP: In Gretzky's book, he said there was one piece of advice he had for you -- quit smoking.
ML: Oh, I did stop smoking a long time ago.
DP: Oh, OK.
ML: That was my first couple years in the league where, you know, I was smoking quite a bit, probably two packs a day.
DP: How did that happen? How did that start? Were you trying to act tough?
ML: No, not really. I think people in Montreal smoke a lot, and I used to smoke when I was 17-18, and just picked it up when I was playing juniors. But I think I stopped when I was 22, which was a big decision in my life.
DP: When you retired, you had assisted on 68 of Jagr's goals. He had assisted on 66 of your goals. Aside from that stat, what's your favorite one?
ML: My favorite goal?
DP: No, your favorite stat.
ML: Oh, my favorite stat.
DP: Yeah, just the fact that here's Jagr with uniform No. 68, and you assisted on 68, and he assisted on 66, and you being No. 66. Well, maybe you didn't find that interesting -- I did.
ML: Not really.
DP: Thank you. All my hard work, and that's what I get out of you.
ML: That's right. You're going too deep on me, man.
DP: All right, favorite stat. Favorite stat that you've been involved in.
ML: Well, I think my favorite stat -- I don't know, maybe the plus/minus, the one year where I was leading the league -- I think it was plus-54 or plus-55, something like that. And to achieve that goal is a lot of hard work, obviously. You need some good players around you, but you also have to be able to play some good defense, and that's something that I was proud of.
DP: You're a big wine guy, right?
ML: Oh yeah, definitely.
DP: OK. Now, I'm going to dinner, and I want you to tell me the vineyard and the year of the wine that I would have with roast pork.
ML: Roast pork. You know what? I don't try to match wine with food, I just drink what I like. And I think a lot of people are going towards that now, which never used to be in the past.
DP: So you wouldn't have a suggestion for me?
ML: I'm a big bordeaux fan. Obviously, my collection is 99 percent bordeaux. So a good bordeaux, a good Mouton-Rothschild or Lafite or even a Pétrus would be nice with that.
DP: See, you're changing the whole image of hockey players, you know that?
ML: How so?
DP: Well, I mean, you know, the wine and owner-now-player, I mean, come on. You're...
DP: Yeah, smoking. You know, I figured you'd just have a beer.
ML: What a great athlete.
DP: Yeah. Yeah, a beer-and-shot guy.
ML: That's right.
DP: Iron City would be your beer?
ML: Absolutely. Yeah. Being from Pittsburgh, that's the beer I drink all the time.
DP: If you're having a dinner party, who do you invite? Give me four or five people you invite.
ML: Oh, probably my golfing buddies. Michael Jordan, John Elway and Dan Marino. That would be a good foursome.
DP: Out of that group, who's the best golfer?
ML: I would have to say John Elway's the best golfer. He's really improved his game since he retired. And then Michael as well, he's been playing pretty much every day and practicing, and he's gotten a lot better. ... Danny doesn't care about his game.
DP: Marino doesn't?
DP: No, he's out there just to drink beer.
DP: Jordan, I think, is a little overrated as a golfer, don't you?
ML: You know what, he's gotten a lot better the last couple years. He used to be, I would say, a seven or eight or nine [handicap]. But since he retired, he's got a lot of pride in his game, and I've seen him shoot a lot of good scores under par on a regular basis. And he's a lot better than he was.
DP: What do you think of Mark Cuban as an owner? He's certainly passionate and involved.
ML: I don't know if he's that passionate. He wanted to be my partner, but it didn't work out. We have different personalities. He's definitely looking for a bit of publicity for himself and the team. But I don't think he's going about it the right way.
DP: Favorite singer?
ML: Celine Dion.
DP: I knew you were going with the home-country advantage.
DP: Gretzky liked high side and short side. Where are you going?
ML: Top shelf. Always.
DP: I heard five-hole.
ML: Five-hole when I'm in trouble. But if I have time, I like to go top shelf. I think it's tough for a goalie the closer you get. Especially if you give him a head fake and he goes down. Then it's pretty easy just to flip it up there.
DP: What's the best thing you did with the Cup?
ML: I slept with it.
DP: By yourself?
ML: My wife was beside me.
DP: So, you and your wife slept with the Cup?
ML: In between us.
DP: You spooned with the Cup?
ML: Just for a few minutes.