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Cook: Return of Lemieux a cause to celebrate

Sunday, July 06, 2003

They staged parades and shot off fireworks all across the region Friday to celebrate Mario Lemieux's decision to play at least one more season with the Penguins.

Well, they should have done it in Lemieux's honor.

We needed a happy sports story in the worst way. The Penguins are fighting for their very survival. The Pirates are losers again. Pitt is facing an uncertain future in the horribly diluted Big East. One of the biggest holidays of the year -- the start of Steelers training camp -- still is several days away. We needed something to get our minds off of the gloom and doom. Lemieux gave it to us when word leaked last week that he's going to play again. The formal announcement could come later this week.

If that isn't a reason for parades and fireworks, what is?

The news came as a wonderful surprise. Anyone who watched Lemieux during and after the final home game last season would have bet a million bucks it was his last game. It wasn't just the way he did his part for the memorabilia business after the game, signing souvenir stick after souvenir stick. It was the way he basked in the love from the adoring Mellon Arena crowd. It had every appearance of being the final farewell.

Who could blame Lemieux if it was? Last season couldn't have been any fun for him, especially after Alexei Kovalev was traded. There he was, still one of the greats of hockey, suddenly left to be the proprietor of a daycare center. That's the best description of the Penguins' locker room. So many young players. So many mistakes. So many losses. The Penguins didn't just miss the playoffs for the second consecutive year. They probably won't make it again next season.

"I'm not sure I want to be part of a rebuilding process," Lemieux said after that final home game.

Hey, you'd be leaning toward retirement, too.

But maybe the past three months rejuvenated Lemieux. Maybe the time off made him realize he still has a passion for hockey. Maybe he decided his new rookie coach, Eddie Olcyzk, is going to need all of the help he can get. Maybe he even began to think the Penguins really might not be so bad next season with all of those young players a year older, a year wiser and a year better.

Or maybe not.

It's more likely Lemieux realized he has to play to sell tickets. He has to play to create a little excitement for the Penguins, to keep them in the public spotlight, to give them their best chance at getting that new arena they need to make it here for the long haul. At the very least, he has to play to protect his interests should that arena deal go south and he has to sell the franchise. If he thinks there's even the slightest chance he'll want to play for another team for big money in the future, he has to play for the Penguins next season.

But, really, who cares about Lemieux's motivation?

What matters is that he's going to play again.

That can't be a bad thing for Lemieux. We're not talking about Willie Mays or Johnny Unitas at the end of the line here. Lemieux isn't just hanging on. He probably would have won another scoring title last season with even a marginally better supporting cast. There's no way he will embarrass himself on the ice.

Getting Lemieux back can't be bad for the Penguins. The talk of his intimidating the team's younger players and thwarting their development is ridiculous. If some players are intimidated by him, they should be cut immediately. You wouldn't want them on your team in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup playoff series, anyway.

And another season of Lemieux certainly can't be bad for those of us who love hockey and fear for its future in Pittsburgh. We're going to get to watch the greatest athlete this city has ever known a little while longer.

We probably shouldn't hold out for the Pirates winning the World Series or Pitt joining the Big Ten.

This is the best sports story we're going to get.

At least until Super Bowl XXXVIII, of course.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.

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