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Savran: Rink is the right place for artist named Mario

Sunday, December 10, 2000

Somewhere, from wherever he's watching, Badger Bob is smiling. It truly is a great day for hockey. Perhaps a caller put it best.

"I feel like a five-year-old on Christmas morning!"

Aptly put. I can't remember a more stunning, astonishing story.

But underneath the emotion of the Lemieux re-debut there's a compelling subtext Why is he coming back?

He wants his son to see him play? Fine.

He thinks his presence will enhance a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup? All right, although what Craig Patrick can or cannot do before the trading deadline will have at least as strong a bearing on that.

Without injecting too much darkness into an otherwise sunny story, one must not ignore the financial angle. Concerns over season-ticket sales this year prevail, and so ticket sales generated by this bombshell will infuse much needed capital into the Penguins' too-close-for-comfort budget.

Not to mention an injection of excitement, energizing the populace, which doesn't normally pay much attention to the Penguins until January, or the end of the Steelers' season, whichever comes first.

And speaking of diverting the public interest, don't discount the fact that with Lemieux back in uniform, it may very well expedite discussions with local government concerning the need for a new arena.

Perhaps he felt a need to help extract the most from his biggest investment. With Jaromir Jagr struggling, and appearing to be in various forms of distress this season, perhaps Mario felt he could deflect pressure and attention, on and off the ice, from Jagr to himself -- a role Lemieux is not necessarily comfortable with, but at least accustomed to.

In varying degrees, all of these issues probably played a part in his decision to "shock the world" as Muhammad Ali used to say. But they're also ancillary to the most personal and fundamental -- he simply missed the game and the competition it provides.

A $10 Nassau just doesn't equal the thrill of swooping down on some shivering masked marvel in the opponent's net.

But why did it take him 3 1/2 years to identify the ache and pursue the remedy?

Perhaps maturity.

At the time of his retirement in 1997, Mario repeated a constant theme as the reason for leaving the game at such a young age. Yes, it had to do with the clutching and grabbing. And yeah, it had something to do with having already played 13 seasons.

But in private moments he would tell you that he could no longer perform at the level to which he was accustomed. Even though he was the only one in the world capable of playing at such a level, and even though it was a level good enough to win a scoring title, even though he was still the best player in the world, it wasn't up to the standard which he had set for himself. It was about playing the game the way he played it when the Arena's first name was still Civic.

Mario's game has always been about the art of it. His "A" game stood for aesthetics, which is what set him apart from all others. He was an artist, using the ice surface as his canvas, his stick and blades as his paint brushes.

And even if the results were still satisfactory, the lack of artistry was not. And so, unable to live with or enjoy the finished product without the artistry, unable to reconcile acquiescing to lower standards, he retired rather than be reduced to the mechanical and the mundane.

I always felt he was being too harsh on himself. Every person, even the nonathletic, begin losing reflexes and physical skills in their 20's. It's physiology. Happens to all, albeit in varying degrees and with varying speeds. Even to those from the All-Galaxy League.

Mario couldn't accept that then. Maybe 31/2 years later, he has. Maybe he's cutting himself some slack. Maybe he will use his unworldly instincts for the game, which won't weather over time, to supplement whatever physical skills have abandoned him.

An artist doesn't paint to sell pictures. He paints for the art of it. It's why Mario played hockey. It's why he will play again.

He need not worry about lessening standards. His previous work is indelible on the canvas of the sport. Now, he can simply go out and enjoy painting. Smile on, Badger Bob.

Stan Savran is the co-host of "SportsBeat" on Fox Sports Pittsburgh.

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