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Savran: Less said the better for Lemieux

Saturday, February 16, 2002

There was this sign. Tacked to the cork board hanging on a Three Rivers Stadium office wall of former Steelers public relations executive Joe Gordon, it read: "You'll never be sorry for what you don't say."

I looked at that sign every time I entered that office, and thought about it every time I left.

Sorry to say I haven't always followed that sage advice but happy to report that my one grudging concession to age and experience is that I have managed to follow it a bit more often.

Mario Lemieux doesn't need lessons from me.

On anything.

He walks with kings. And at least as impressive as his skills on the frozen pond are those he displays with people ... princes and paupers alike. Yet, sometimes, less is more and more isn't necessarily better.

This has less to do with his pre-Olympic playing schedule than it does with the explanation of his position.

Half a sentence would have sufficed.

All Lemieux needed to say was, "I'm going to stick to my plan of not playing back-to-back games."

Period.

End of sentence, end of story.

But when you insert a comma and add, "until the Olympics" or "I plan to play every game after the Olympics," red flags are hoisted up every pole.

There's not room, nor need, for interpretation when you add the second half of that statement. It sounds a clarion call that representing Canada is the clear priority.

Which is fine.

But a Canadian gold medal won't soothe the feelings of Penguins fans one iota if their team doesn't make the playoffs.

In fairness, if the Penguins were in their customary circumstance of merely jockeying for playoff position, this would be a tempest in a teapot.

That not being the case this season, fans are understandably upset. They have their priorities, too.

Of course Lemieux is battle tested in the wars of public opinion.

He faced blistering attacks from the Canadian media until he lifted the Stanley Cup a time or two.

It was only then that they reluctantly elevated him from super player to superstar. (Add to that the fact it's poor form for even tabloid newspapers to attack a cancer survivor.)

The Canadian media behaved like jilted lovers when he declined to participate in various international competitions. Back surgeries and radiation treatments apparently weren't infirmities serious enough to constitute a proper excuse.

Maybe he should have gotten a note from his mother.

That vindictiveness transcended not playing for Canada past the '87 Canada Cup.

Lemieux was criticized by Canadians across four time zones simply because he wasn't Wayne Gretzky and because his first language wasn't English.

And even the French-speaking provinces voiced their displeasure with him because he wouldn't embrace the role of being the anti-Gretzky.

He couldn't win.

Through it all he maintained a stoic indifference. A highly principled man, he stuck to his beliefs fiercely during the maelstrom of criticism.

In the process, it forged an inner resolve. He's comfortable with his decisions, feeling no need to defend them.

While he might not regret what he said in the second half of that sentence, there can be a price to be paid.

It's the fans who now take the role of jilted lovers. They pour more than money into this team. They pour their emotions into it. That might sound melodramatic, but it's no less true. And given that emotional bond, it's not so much that the fans are angered by Lemieux's playing schedule, it's that he asked a prettier girl to the dance.

Been dating his steady all school year long, but come prom time, he fell for someone more attractive, an infatuation with someone more glamorous.

And what do most of us do when we're hurt emotionally? We lash out.

In this case, maybe by declining to buy tickets. "Hey, if the big guy doesn't care, why should we?" A valid question, although it will resolve itself once play and the desperation of the playoff chase resumes.

It's not so much the issue of whether Lemieux should have played more frequently for the Penguins, it's that he could have, still served his country and not upset those dedicated to his franchise.

He could have mollified all by keeping his statement to that half-sentence.

It's ironic. There was a time when dragging even a half-sentence out of Lemieux was a feat truly worthy of an Olympic medal.


Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 8-9 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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