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Cook: Mario, Caufield forge strong links

Monday, June 10, 2002

If you ranked the 59 celebrities who played in the Mario Lemieux charity golf tournament yesterday, you would put Jay Caufield about 112th. He wasn't in the field because of what he did for the Penguins in their two Stanley Cup years. "I was a role player who knew his role."

He was at The Club of Nevillewood for just one reason: He is pals with Lemieux.

As far as Pittsburgh should be concerned, Caufield was the second-most important person on the course. In early August, he will be responsible for getting Lemieux ready for the grueling NHL season as his conditioning sergeant for daily drills on the ice.

It's not the glamorous job you might think. Nothing less than the future of the Penguins could be at stake.

That's why it was a bit unsettling to hear what Lemieux's wife, Nathalie, had to say during her appearance in the tournament's press room Saturday. Now we know why Lemieux likes to keep her behind the scenes. She's the honest one in the family.

"He was so drained and tired and his back was out of whack and his hip was giving him trouble ..." she said, describing her husband's condition after the tournament's first round Friday.

Caufield grimaced when he heard that.

"I'll know the first week after we get started if he's going to be able to come back and play this season," said Caufield.

"We've got to do everything we can to get him ready, but we don't want to do so much that he reinjures himself. It's hard with a guy like him. Any great athlete is going to go as hard as he can, even if he's not 100 percent. I've got to make sure I really gauge things with him."

It's obvious Lemieux trusts Caufield's judgment. Caufield was one of the first people he called when he decided to come out of retirement early in the 2000-01 season. Lemieux will tell you their work together was a big reason he was able to come back, score 76 points in 43 games, finish second in the Hart Trophy voting and lead the Penguins to the Eastern Conference final.

Their relationship is fascinating, Lemieux one of the greatest hockey players of all time and Caufield, a grinder who won't be remembered by anyone but his teammates. Lemieux and the other players didn't just like Caufield when he was with the Penguins from 1988-93. They respected him as much as anyone on the team because of how hard he worked and his commitment to them. A former middle linebacker at the University of North Dakota, he didn't take hockey seriously until his senior year of college. He fairly willed himself an NHL career.

"Mario pays attention to what I have to say," Caufield said. "I know he's going to work hard. And I know he has a passion to be the best.

"If he's healthy and even 75 percent of what he was, he'll still be better than 99 percent of the players in the league."

Caufield first saw that commitment from Lemieux when he made his comeback in the fall of 2000. If it surprised him, he didn't say, although he did laugh and repeat the often-told joke about Lemieux's old idea of preseason conditioning: Giving up fries with his burgers.

Caufield saw it even more last summer when Lemieux trained with him to get in the best shape of his career. You think you were crushed when Lemieux's hip was first injured during a September exhibition game? Imagine how Caufield felt. The injury limited Lemieux to 24 games with the Penguins before he finally shut down for the season in late-February after leading Canada to the gold medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics.

Now, Lemieux and Caufield must try to do it one more time.

Here's why it's so important to the Penguins' future:

Team officials have said they need a new arena to survive in Pittsburgh. Their best chance of getting it is a winning team and a lot of sellouts at Mellon Arena. Their best chance of that is a healthy, productive Lemieux.

It says something about Caufield that Lemieux puts so much trust in him. It also says something about him that he asks for nothing in return. He has done well in the credit-card business and lives awfully comfortably in Wexford for a journeyman player.

"I played with a great group of guys," Caufield said. "I've done this for a lot of them -- Mario, Mark Recchi, Rick Tocchet, Kevin Stevens -- since I retired. I'd do it for any of them."

It's obvious Caufield's friendship with Lemieux has opened a lot of doors for him, including the one to the terrific weekend gig at Nevillewood.

But it's equally obvious the friendship has been just as good for Lemieux.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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