Mario Lemieux overcame a debilitating back injury and Hodgkin's disease to become one of the most prolific scorers in NHL history. Shaking off the rust of three years' retirement should be a breeze.
Lemieux, who led the Pittsburgh Penguins to two Stanley Cup championships and rescued the franchise from bankruptcy a year ago when he became the Penguins' owner and chief executive officer, will return to the ice within a few weeks, sources close to him said Thursday.
Lemieux, who was voted into hockey's hall of fame soon after his 1997 retirement -- the usual three-year waiting period was waived for him -- has been skating and working out for several weeks.
Encouraged by his conditioning, he recently stepped up his workouts in anticipation of rejoining a team that has struggled. The Penguins rank sixth in the Eastern Conference with a 13-10-3-1 record and 30 points, and top scorer Jaromir Jagr has endured uncharacteristic scoring droughts and philosophical differences with Coach Ivan Hlinka.
Lemieux's return no doubt would also help at the gate. The Penguins through Nov. 27 stood 18th among 30 teams in home attendance with an average of 15,237, about 1,700 below capacity in an arena that is located on Mario Lemieux Place.
"It's true," an associate said of Lemieux's comeback, which the Penguins are expected to confirm at a news conference Friday. "It's really something else. He's been thinking about it for a while and has been skating. He started to train hard, and he's feeling great.
"He really wants to do this. He knows it's going to help the franchise, and he wants to help the franchise. He also thinks they have a chance to win the Cup."
The NHL does not prohibit players from owning all or part of the club that employs them.
Lemieux would be obliged only to give up his seat on the league's board of governors. He is expected to discuss his plan with his fellow governors during meetings next week in Florida, but his return doesn't require their approval.
The NHL's policy contrasts with rules established by the NBA, which told Magic Johnson to sell the 5 percent stake in the Lakers he had purchased in 1994 before he could resume his career. The NFL does not prohibit player-owners and has a precedent for that rare combination in George Halas, who owned and played for the Chicago Bears in the league's early days. Major League Baseball Rule 20(e) states the commissioner would have to approve a player-owner arrangement but does not prohibit it.
Lemieux must sign a new contract, but it's likely he would take a minimal salary to avoid inflating his own budget.
The Quebec native would join Gordie Howe and Guy Lafleur in the ranks of players who returned to the ice after being inducted into hockey's hall of fame. Howe, inducted in 1972, came out of retirement to play in the World Hockey Association, with sons Mark and Marty. He played his 26th and final NHL season in 1979-80. Lafleur ended a two-year retirement to join the New York Rangers and later the Quebec Nordiques. Neither player approached his previous greatness, but both were older than Lemieux. He turned 35 in October.
A winner of six scoring titles and three most-valuable-player awards, Lemieux scored 613 goals and 1,494 points in 745 games in a career interrupted by back surgery, Hodgkin's and the chemotherapy that banished the disease. His career average of 2.005 points a game exceeds the 1.921 average compiled by Wayne Gretzky, who is the NHL's all-time scoring leader and is widely considered the game's greatest player.
Lemieux has been free of Hodgkin's for several years.
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