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11/20/1997 04:05 EST

Lemieux Teary as His Jersey Retired

By ALAN ROBINSON
AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Mario Lemieux arrived in Pittsburgh in 1984 as a nervous French-speaking teen-ager who didn't even know how to say hello. He certainly knows how to say goodbye.

Lemieux, one of the greatest players in hockey history, pulled on his No. 66 jersey for perhaps the last time Wednesday as the Pittsburgh Penguins officially retired the new Hall of Famer's number.

It was a night of cheers and tears, of tributes and memories, and even the normally composed Lemieux halted his prepared remarks as he choked up with emotion.

``It's difficult to tell people how important they are to you,'' Lemieux said.

Lemieux, the sixth-leading scorer in NHL history, retired last spring after winning six scoring titles and leading what once was the league's worst franchise to Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992.

The 30-minute jersey retirement ceremony came two days after Lemieux joined the Hockey Hall of Fame, which waived its normal three-year waiting period for induction.

Lemieux attracted numerous sellout crowds to a Civic Arena that often was two-thirds empty before his arrival, and he did so again Wednesday -- the Penguins' first standing room-only crowd of the season.

The Lemieux-less Penguins tied the Boston Bruins 3-3, but many of the fans were long gone by the end. They had come for one reason -- to say goodbye to the greatest player in franchise history.

``Thank you for making the last 13 years of my life the best 13 years of my life,'' Lemieux said, moments just before a large No. 66 banner was hoisted to the top of the Civic Arena.

``I have a lot of great memories in this building, the many comebacks from back surgery and Hodgkin's disease, some of the important goals that I scored during our Stanley Cup years. Those memories we can all cherish for the rest of our lives.''

There was only one disappointing moment for the fans: Lemieux did not announce a comeback.

Lemieux, who is only 32, returned so often from injury and illness that some fans held out faint hope that he might reconsider his decision to quit. Even team owner Howard Baldwin said following a Game 5 loss to Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup playoffs in April that he hadn't ruled out a comeback.

But Lemieux emphasized during his Hall of Fame induction that he will never play hockey again, saying, ``I'm retired.''

During a brief news conference before the jersey retirement, Lemieux said he felt as nervous as he did before all but a few of his games.

He recalled how, as a French-Canadian teen-ager who didn't ``speak a word of English,'' he realized only weeks after arriving in Pittsburgh in 1984 how long it would take to build a winner.

The Penguins were one of the NHL's most unstable franchises before his arrival -- the team's offices once were padlocked for non-payment of taxes -- and they did not make the playoffs until his sixth year in the league.

``The first few games in Pittsburgh were very difficult, and I knew it would take a long, long time for us to get some draft picks and some players who could play the game,'' he said.

After they finally started winning, the Penguins seemed destined to win more Stanley Cups after they won consecutive titles in 1991 and 1992.

But they were upset by the New York Islanders in the 1993 playoffs and, later that year, Lemieux was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, or cancer of the lymph nodes, and missed three-quarters of that season.

He later sat out the 1994-95 season after recovering from the cancer and a second bout with back trouble but returned to lead the Penguins to within one victory of a third trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996.

He won his fifth and sixth scoring championships in his final two seasons in the league.

``How do I want to remembered? Just as somebody who took a last-place team and won a championship,'' he said. ``That was a big challenge to me when I came to Pittsburgh, and we were finally able to do it.''



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