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Madden: Lemieux debate not worth fuss

Saturday, February 16, 2002

At the beginning of the season, Mario Lemieux told everyone that he planned to sit out the road game when the Penguins played on back-to-back days, thus preserving his fragile health. Now that he's followed through, everyone seems to have their panties in a bunch. L'affaire Lemieux should be a total nonissue. Instead, it's a headline grabber.

It's not surprising. Disappointment in the Steelers has abated, enthusiasm about the Pirates is a dozen good players and/or another new ballpark away, and people are steadfastly refusing to notice Pitt basketball despite the Panthers' remarkable 21-4 record. Pittsburgh sports fans enjoy being miserable, and Lemieux forsaking the Penguins to concentrate on Olympic glory gives them something to moan about.

The only mistake Lemieux made was admitting his priorities. What people don't know won't aggravate them, and he could have avoided a few minor headaches by saying he was merely sticking to a previously set playing schedule.

Lemieux's occasional absence is hardly the main problem with the Penguins, who actually got three out of six points in the three games Mario recently missed. The Penguins are not fading from the playoff race because of those three contests. They're merely a lousy team this year.

I'm not going to bore you with a lengthy version of the usual pro-Mario spiel: He's overcome so much, he's saved hockey in Pittsburgh, he's given us a lifetime of thrills, what a great guy, blah, blah, blah. But that's all true, and if anyone's earned the right to call his shots, it is Lemieux.

But the reality of this situation comes down to cash. Lemieux isn't cheating the guy who signs his checks because he is the guy who signs his checks. He owns the Penguins. Like most NHL teams, the Penguins do their budget based on playing in one round of the playoffs. If they don't make it, they lose money.

The Penguins' 11-season playoff streak is at risk. The fragile emotions of the fans are at risk. But Lemieux's pocketbook is at the greatest risk.

It's also hard to knock Lemieux for making the Olympics his first priority when the NHL has totally rolled over for the Winter Games. The NHL halted and negatively altered its own schedule to facilitate and sanction a competing product that has more prestige than its own Stanley Cup playoffs, even after the 1998 Nagano Olympics showed that the NHL did not gain anything from it. Television ratings didn't go up, ticket sales didn't go up, overall awareness didn't go up -- but hey, let's try it again.

The NHL says the Olympics are No. 1. So why shouldn't Lemieux? Maybe Lemieux is just backing the stronger horse. Canada has a better shot at gold than the Penguins do at the playoffs.

L'affaire Lemieux is no big deal. It's been greatly overblown by the wretched media. About 75 percent of the calls to my show about this tempest have been supportive of Mario. And Lemieux is not going to get booed at Mellon Arena. The Pope doesn't get jeered at the Vatican.

The remainder of the Penguins' season will be most interesting. Darius Kasparaitis and Robert Lang are both set for free agency at season's end, and both are locks to be traded. Will General Manager Craig Patrick give up on the playoff chase and trade both players with an eye toward the future? Or will he make deals to benefit the Penguins in the short term?

I'd do the former, but I'm predicting the latter. The 11-season playoff streak means a lot to Patrick and Lemieux. Both present and future could be served by trading for Edmonton defenseman Tom Poti, 24, but the Penguins might prefer Philadelphia defenseman Eric Desjardins, 32, a Lemieux crony. If the Penguins have a chance to acquire Poti but get Desjardins, then you can bash Mario.

Perhaps the Penguins should do what the NBA's Washington Wizards are doing with Michael Jordan: Use Lemieux's twilight seasons to rebuild.

Make Lemieux the centerpiece of a team otherwise populated by up-and-coming youngsters who would benefit from his experience. Accompanying that philosophy shift with a shrewd public-relations campaign would put Lemieux in a no-lose situation. If the Penguins struggle, well, look at Mario making sacrifices for the good of the franchise. If the Penguins succeed, Mario is a miracle worker. Many NBA pundits have said that Jordan's biggest accomplishment would be getting the Wizards into the playoffs this year. That's absurd when you consider Jordan's six NBA titles and five MVPs, but perception equals reality.

Of course, the remainder of the Penguins' season holds one possibility most people are ignoring.

Perhaps Lemieux will return from Salt Lake City with a medal, international glory, a new lease on his hockey life and a body bolstered by Olympic adrenaline. Perhaps Lemieux will knock in a ton of goals, dish off a bunch of assists, play sterling defense and do all the things that he does when things are right. Perhaps Lemieux will conjure a miracle and single-handedly get the Penguins in the playoffs.

That's what I'm betting on.

After all, that's what Lemieux does.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on ESPN Radio (1250).

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