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Savran: Lemieux is back, let's enjoy the ride

Sunday, December 31, 2000

Men my age aren't supposed to giggle. Laugh, guffaw, chortle, chuckle or snicker? Fine. But we shouldn't giggle like when the girl we have a crush on just asked us to the Valentine's Day Dance. But I confess. When Mario Lemieux scored that goal Wednesday night, I involuntarily let out a yelp! And then I giggled.

Couldn't believe it, I guess, although why should I have been surprised? How many times does he have to do unexpected things before we begin to expect them? How many times does he have to amaze us before we cease being amazed? Ted Williams hit a home run in his final at-bat. On the occasion of becoming baseball's first black manager, Frank Robinson inserted himself into the lineup and hit one over the fence in his first at-bat.

Mario scores a goal in his first shift on his first shot in his first game. Scores a goal in his first game back after radiation treatments. He gets an assist barely a half minute into his first game in 44 months. Rips one behind one of the NHL's elite goaltenders, perhaps forcing Wayne Gretzky to think seriously about becoming the second (and second best) owner to play in the league. Guys like Williams and Robinson and Lemieux do things like that. How? Haven't the slightest.

I suppose it's the same as air standing still when Pavarotti sings, but when you warble in the shower, your soap-on-a-rope hangs itself. Or when David Letterman says something funny, you mumble to yourself, "How did he think of that?"

When Lemieux fired that one-timer past Cujo, I wondered, after all that time away, if he went through some sort of mental gymnastic as the puck came sliding toward him. "OK, here comes the biscuit. I'm going to one-time it. Joseph will be focused on Jags, so he won't be able to get across the crease in time. I'll go high over the right shoulder."

Or not.

He did what a lion would do when within paw's length of an antelope. Did what he was born and bred to do. He attacked. Even after a three-year layoff, he didn't need to think. I thought of that phenomenal goal he scored during the Stanley Cup final in 1991. The one where he twisted two North Star defensemen into Gumby's, and left goalie Jon Casey sprawled on the ice with all four extremities pointing in four different directions.

I remember asking him afterward if he'd actually thought about the move he would make as he swooped down the ice. "No," he responded. "I just kind of did it." He answered with the full understanding that I would never be able to fully understand. But then, most of the players in the NHL don't fully understand. He just sees things differently, just as Picasso or Rembrandt must have. Perhaps the same way you might view a cello as wood and string, while to Yo Yo Ma it's a magic carpet to heavenly sound.

For those who may not remember records, they were black vinyl things that played music by spinning around on a turntable at either 45 or 331/3 revolutions per minute. It has always seemed to me that if a hockey game were being played at 45 rpms, Mario saw the game at 33 and a third. As if it were an out-of-body experience for him, able to remove his mind from his body, and watch the game from invisible scaffolding above the ice. I suppose the best way to explain remarkable talent is that it can't be explained.

For me, the two things that best describe his performance in the first game of the rest of his career are that both of his linemates scored an even-strength goal. He was also able to make those around him better. Remember Warren Young and Doug Shedden? And his passing. The understanding that no player can skate faster than the puck, so that a great pass can be as slow and soft as need be.

I was happy for him Wednesday night. I know how badly he wanted to excel. I was happy for the fans at the Mellon Arena and those watching on TV, who were genuinely happy for him as well. Seeing Mario play again is like a millionaire winning the lottery. He already gave us a lifetime of memories, which became memories of a lifetime. Not to be greedy, but now we get more.


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

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