Among the deluge of reaction to Mario Lemieux's retirement, there are two not uncommon threads being pulled. A couple of examples: "His body betrayed the talent that was given him", says the headline most succintly over Mark Spector's National Post column, and over at the Calgary Sun, Eric Francis notes that the Great One still trumps the Magnificent One.
|And now a new era begins.|
The other way of looking at this: yes, he missed 400 games due to injury, but the wonder is that he was able to last this long. The man's 40 years old and has played over a thousand NHL regular season and playoff games, along with Team Canada ('85 world championship, '87 Canada Cup, '02 Olympics, '04 World Cup), despite more tha his share of the usual knocks and pings, including a a couple of back surgeries, a hip ailment and a bout with cancer, which he managed to beat, thus becoming an inspiration to thousands.
As for comparing Gretzky's 1 to Lemieux's 1-A in your NHL superstars programme of the 1980s and '90s, Mario has had the much more uncommon career arc -- how many athletes of this era last as long in one place, much less a fellow who has overcome Hodgkin's lymphoma, kept an ailing franchise from foundering and eventually assuming the player/CEO dual portfolio, shepherding the anointed Sidney Crosby into the next era of a league that, for all its ups and downs, is a far more lucrative place for players than it was upon his arrival? (Lemieux's first NHL contract was $700,000 for two years, after some testy negotiations; More than two decades later, Lemieux's Pens signed Crosby to a rookie-scale deal that begins at $850,000 and rises with incentives to nearly $4 million.)
I remember taking the train to Montreal in 1984 to see Lemieux's Laval team play at the old Forum. He was in the final weeks of his junior career and there were loud whispers that he wasn't quite the force he was cracked up to be. But watching the long strides, the nonchalance and mostly the air of boredom he seemed to be playing with, it was clear that he had outgrown that stage, a man among boys.
That never changed. Lemieux had the rare package of size, grace and skill -- he made it look easy, as the cliche goes, which is perhaps why so much of the comment surrounding his retirement has this tinge of unfulfilled potential about it. The truth for all athletes is that it's never easy, and for very few -- like Lemieux -- when you get to the end of the road and look back, it has the air of the impossible.