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Madden: Lemieux reborn with friend's help

Saturday, December 16, 2000

Jay Caufield was beaming like an expectant father yesterday as he stood in a dressing room at the Island Sports Center on Neville Island. But the ex-Penguins tough guy won't be welcoming a new baby anytime soon. No, come Dec. 27 Caufield will instead deliver the world's greatest hockey player back to Mellon Arena.

Mario Lemieux's tentative return date to the Penguins' lineup is, indeed, Dec. 27 at home against Toronto and, when he returns, every hockey fan in Pittsburgh will owe a debt of gratitude to Caufield. Always a monument to physical conditioning, Caufield is the man training Mario for his return.

Caufield has done an amazing job. Lemieux has worked with Caufield on and off the ice for more than a month, and if Lemieux isn't quite game-ready physically, he's frighteningly close for a man who hasn't played competitive hockey in more than three years.

"He's getting his power back," Caufield said after the on-ice workout yesterday. "You can hear the drive, you can hear the crunch. You can hear it in his stride when you skate with him."

Caufield skates with Lemieux. Every day, every drill, every sprint, every stride.

"It helps to have someone do something with you," Caufield said. "You work hard together to reach a goal."

For Lemieux, that goal is a return to the NHL. For Caufield, the goal is satisfaction in a task well done. He's not getting paid for his labor. He's done similar work in the off-season with ex-Penguins Mark Recchi, Rick Tocchet and Ron Francis, and Caufield also does that gratis.

"They're all good friends of mine," said Caufield, who works in the insurance business. "They did everything for me when I played. I'd do anything for them in a heartbeat."

Caufield, 40, played forward with the Penguins from 1988-93, making most of his impact with his fists. He has his name on the Stanley Cup twice. He says that working out with Lemieux brings back "a lot of great memories," but knows his future hockey will be confined to charity games.

When Lemieux first thought of making a comeback, he knew Caufield was the man to start him on the path.

"Jay was always a hard worker and a guy who took care of himself," Lemieux said yesterday. "He's trained Mark Recchi, Rick Tocchet and Ronnie Francis, and those guys have had nothing but great things to say about the work he's done. He's got some hard drills, which is what I need. He's made a big difference for me."

Lemieux smiled, then added, "And Jay can shoot the puck. Always could."

Indeed, Caufield netted nearly as many goals as Lemieux during an informal, three-on-three scrimmage, a game that included ex-Penguins Bob Errey and Dave Hannan. Give Lemieux, Caufield, Errey and Hannan a few more guys and a decent goalie, and they could easily win a minor-league championship.

Instead, Lemieux will return to the NHL. Caufield's short but intense on-ice workouts should have him ready for the breakneck pace he'll face.

"An hour-and-a-half is the longest we've done," Caufield said. "Everything is focused on Mario, and he works hard every minute he's out there. He's put a lot of passion and desire into this. Today, we backed off a little bit at the end. You don't want to fry him mentally and physically. But the fact is, he's worked harder and harder every day we've been out here.

"If Mario can stay healthy, there's no doubt in my mind he'll be the best again. He skates around us like we're little kids out there. He skates around NHL defensemen like they're little kids."

Caufield's workouts with Lemieux began in anonymity.

"I was surprised when no one knew about this for a long time," Caufield said. Monday will mark Caufield's last session with Lemieux, who will begin practicing with the Penguins Tuesday. If Lemieux's comeback goes beyond this season -- and Caufield seems to be assuming it will -- Lemieux will train with Caufield again next off-season.

Caufield is just now adjusting to the idea that he's part of hockey history.

"It's hard to think in those terms, but I guess that's right," Caufield said, smiling. "It's been a lot of fun for me, that's the big thing. It's going to be great to see Mario play again."

Caufield occasionally goes to Penguins games -- "maybe a couple a year" -- but doesn't anticipate being there Dec. 27 for the planned Lemieux re-debut.

"I'll probably sit at home and watch it with my wife and kids on TV," Caufield said. "That's how I like it. I like to kick back."

Caufield knows when to kick back. But he knows when to be intense, too. If Lemieux's return is successful -- and really, is there any doubt? -- Caufield's intensity will be a big reason why.

If the Penguins reach the greatness Lemieux has in mind, namely winning a third Stanley Cup, Caufield's name won't be engraved on the big silver chalice this time.

But it probably should be.

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