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Finder on the web: In Wheeling, another Lemieux chases a hockey dream, too

Tuesday, January 09, 2001

WHEELING, W.Va. -- Fifty miles southwest of the epicenter of the hockey world's attention -- the thriller dome with the lights spelling a Hall of Fame surname atop its roof and the address of 66 Mario Lemieux Place and the National Hockey League ownership of Lemieux Group LP -- there's a brother who silently yearns to make a comeback, too.

"Sometimes, you wish you could go on the ice and do it yourself," Alain Lemieux was saying Sunday night, after watching his minor leaguers allow an atrocious losing goal with an even more atrocious three overtime seconds remaining.

Why not? It runs in the family.

"I know," big brother added with a smile.

He was the first boy to ascend to glory from the brutal basement games in the Ville Emard rowhouse along Rue Jogues. He was the first of Jean-Guy and Pierrette Lemieux's brood to carry offensive playmaking ability onto NHL ice, the first to score a professional goal and reach a Stanley Cup playoff, with St. Louis and then Quebec in the early 1980s. Then, by the middle of the decade, a brother three years younger came along and sent the hockey world spinning a first time.

After the two Stanley Cups, a house full of hockey hardware and the Hall of Fame induction, after rescuing the Penguins from bankruptcy and hiring his big brother as coach of the minor-league club Wheeling Nailers, little brother one month ago left the puck planet dizzy a second time. Mario Lemieux's magical mystery comeback tour continued Monday night in Washington and Tuesday night in Boston, where a Canadian network planned to devote an entire broadcast to all Mario all the time.

Sunday night, back inside the Wheeling Civic Center, big brother's East Coast Hockey League team was frittering away yet another game before yet another disappointed crowd of 2,000 or so. The Nailers dropped to 11-21-5. They fell with a thud into last place in the Northern Conference in scoring, averaging fewer goals per game (2.62) than a certain little brother averaged points through his first four comeback games (3.0). No wonder when the public-address announcer concludes home-team introductions with the Nailers coach, "Mr. Alain Lemieux," the half-empty building resounds in mild cheers and scattered jeers.

Yes, a Lemieux gets booed.

Mr. Alain Lemieux is so flummoxed, so frustrated, he wishes he could carry some of that familial offensive ability onto ECHL ice.

"Some of the big problems I see are playmaking and passes," said Alain, 38, his point being made by that pronounced Lemieux forehead and piercing blue eyes. "That's the biggest difference between this and the American [Hockey] League. The passing. The mental mistakes. It costs you."

This second-rung level of the minor leagues doesn't make it any less trying. Big brother's roster gets bumped anytime little brother's changes. That's what happened in December, when Alain's Nailers were just going good -- starts of 1-8-1 and 5-13-3 giving way to a 4-1-1 roll to open the month. Then the Penguins' Jean-Sebastian Aubin needed knee surgery, and an AHL goaltender got called to the parent club, and Nailers goaltender Joel Laing headed for northeastern Pennsylvania. After Laing left, Wheeling won one more game the rest of December.

Wheeling fans boo because they expect big brother to dial up little brother and plea for help. Yet Alain understands; he played in the top minor-league level, once wearing No. 33 for the Penguins' AHL Baltimore Skipjacks affiliate because, the joke went, he was half as good as No. 66. He played in the NHL when it was four teams smaller, last getting called to play for the Penguins for one game in 1987 when little brother was absent with bronchitis, then retiring with 72 points in 119 NHL games and a much larger AHL resume.

"That's the way the affiliation is. The Penguins don't have a lot of guys to filter all the way down to the East Coast League." So the coach mans the telephone. The roster evolves constantly.

Thirteen 2000-01 Nailers are no longer on the team, including Penguins draftees Alexei Kolkunov and Mark Moore (both went home rather than to Wheeling) plus guys named Stastny (Michal) and the Brothers Kaebel (Karson and Butch). Four players remain injured, including backup goaltender Mark Scally of Moon with two fractures on the same finger. Another player was suspended for the game Sunday, Russian winger Boris Protsenko. ("We're getting nailed all over the place," the coach said, no pun intended). Eight players were added between August and October. Seven more arrived after the season started.

One of those, Mike Hurley, came to Wheeling two hours before game time Friday night and quickly potted two goals. In obtaining the skilled winger who played for him last season in ECHL Jacksonville, the coach had to trade away a pretty fair defenseman, Justin Harney, who also happens to be the kid brother of his assistant, Joe Harney.

Chris Newans, his eight leagues and 11 pro years and 15 different teams redefining the phrase journeyman defenseman, toiled against Alain the player-coach in Tucson three years ago in the Western Professional Hockey League. The Nailers coach brought Newans into the Penguins fold this season, and now Newans is one of the guys who teases the big brother. "When Mario announced his comeback, we were telling Alain, 'You should get him here for some conditioning work. So his timing is back.'" Mario never had a problem with timing, though.

Alain Lemieux, three years older and four inches shorter and far more than 50 miles removed from his world-famous brother, trudges onward. He looks at Johnstown and Greensboro in the Northern Division standings, he looks at his still-being-remodeled roster, he looks at a second-rung minor league he strives to learn, and he keeps hope.

"We're still in the hunt," said the coach, who makes the 35-minute commute every day from his South Hills home, except when the Nailers hit the road for four-, six- and even 12-hour bus trips. "We've got to keep battling."

He wants to coach another year here, figuring stability and a nucleus of players and a second season can translate into success for a franchise that has been losing in the three years since it changed its name from Thunderbirds.

But little brother owes him. Before the owner is done playing, he should give Alain a job in the Penguins front office, at 66 Mario Lemieux Place. At least then Jean-Guy and Pierrette could remain in one cozy owner's box instead of occasionally trekking 50 miles to sit in the half-empty stands of a building where some fans have the audacity to boo a Lemieux.

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