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Mark's Madness: Smart money says Mario stays a Penguin

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Before anyone thanks Mario Lemieux for staying, know this: He was never going.

The idea that Lemieux was going to sell his share of the Penguins, then play somewhere else, was a fantasy fabricated by a handful of pseudo-journalists in the vain hope that No. 66 would soon be skating at an arena near them.

Larry Brooks of the New York Post wrote that Lemieux would play for the Rangers. Toronto Sun columnist Al Strachan said on Canadian television that Lemieux would skate for Montreal. If Mario hadn't issued his denial Monday, English papers would have linked him with Manchester United by now.

Brooks and Strachan are just a couple of homers who know how to type. They thought they could click their red shoes together three times, and Lemieux would appear at their doorstep.

ESPN's Bill Clement appeared on my radio talk show Monday and told a funny anecdote about Strachan. Clement said hockey types occasionally fabricate stories, then talk about them when Strachan is within hearing range. Strachan, of course, eavesdrops. Said hockey types then wait for Strachan to present these stories, as fact, in his column or during a television appearance. Which he invariably does.

Anyone who knows what Lemieux is all about should have realized he wasn't going anywhere when he discussed the future of the Penguins at a meeting with season-ticket holders last week. Lemieux simply isn't morally capable of plotting a quick getaway even as he smiles and shakes the hands of the paying customers. Jim Leyland is. Mario Lemieux isn't.

The financial windfall Lemieux could have collected by playing for another team is a bit overrated, too. Let's say Lemieux could have slogged through three seasons with the Rangers or Montreal at $15 million per. That's $45 million, which isn't bad.

But considering that the NHL must negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement in 2004, and considering the value of the Penguins in Mellon Arena and without Lemieux, selling the Penguins now would have been virtually impossible. Lemieux would have been lucky to get chump change. As a player, he could have lost a season to a labor dispute, too. Goodbye, $15 million.

But if Lemieux perseveres as owner and gets a new arena, and the new CBA puts NHL teams on an equal competitive level financially, the value of the Penguins goes way up. When Lemieux sells the team someday, he gets a lot more money then than he could put together by selling now and playing elsewhere.

The Penguins will get a new arena, by the way. There's a lot of money in Harrisburg earmarked for such projects. It might take a bit of time. But it will happen.

As for Lemieux coming back as a player someplace else, what would be the point? The most significant statistical milestone within reach is 700 goals, and he can surely get 18 more playing for the Penguins. As for winning a Stanley Cup, Mario has done that twice. It's not like he's Ray Bourque, desperately trying to get a Cup before he retires.

Lemieux's resume is so pure. Drafted a Penguin, always a Penguin. Even another Cup wouldn't be worth besmirching that. When you look at Wayne Gretzky's lifetime pro record -- Indianapolis, Edmonton, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Rangers -- it just screams journeyman.

Lemieux -- on any team -- wouldn't necessarily guarantee a Cup, anyway. I'm not even sure his presence would guarantee the Rangers the playoffs.

Mario is still the most potent offensive force in the game. But in today's tightly bunched NHL, he wouldn't put any team that far above the pack.

And what if Lemieux got hurt? Hey, he often does. Even for a talent such as Mario, $15 million per is a big risk.

Mario's best decision -- well, the one I'm hoping he makes, anyway -- would be to announce that he's going to play one more season and one more season only.

Combining a farewell season with the decrease in ticket prices at Mellon Arena would almost certainly lead to a strong year in terms of attendance. If Lemieux has a good, injury-free year, and a new CBA gets hammered out, and things are looking up for the Penguins on the ice, he can always change his mind and play some more. No law against that.

The Penguins are not going to be that bad this coming season. They have young legs up front and decent talent in the back.

The Penguins are much better off than the Pirates, that's for sure. The Pirates' young talent is several years away. Much of the Penguins' young talent is ready to play right now. The Penguins will make the playoffs again long before the Pirates come close.

Pittsburgh should learn to more greatly appreciate those athletes and coaches who have been loyal to the city.

Men such as Lemieux, Bill Cowher and Jason Kendall have passed up chances to skip town for situations that promised greater money and/or greater glory, yet are the target of fan vitriol more often than the slew of carpetbaggers who merely pass through the city. If this were the sports town people make it out to be, that wouldn't be the case.

I'm going to wrap up this column with some great news: Lemieux is definitely going to play next season. I overheard Bill Clement talking to John Davidson the other day, and they said ...

Mark Madden is the hosts of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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