Super Mario Returns

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Giving him the business: Coach Ivan Hlinka with Lemieux

It never works out. The hero comes back, but it turns into ugliness: Jim Palmerís hamstring pops in spring training; Frank Gifford canít run. So when Mario Lemieux — the hockey player anti-Gretzkyites consider the best ever — decided to rejoin the Pittsburgh Penguins after a 31/2-year retirement, you couldnít help averting your eyes.

But the return of Super Mario lifted the Pens from mediocrity into the thick of the National Hockey League play-offs. After dramatic wins over the Washington Capitals and the Buffalo Sabres, Lemieux's Pens finally fell Tuesday to the defending champs, the New Jersey Devils, in the conference finals. More than that, his disease-of-the-week TV movie of a life has spurred new interest in the NHL, which tends to feature talented but faceless East European guys whose names make Lemieux seem easy to spell.

Lemieux retired in 1997, at 31, after leading Pittsburgh to two Stanley Cup championships and collecting nearly every award the NHL could offer and wasnít busy giving to Wayne Gretzky. He had plenty of skill left, but a battle with Hodgkinís disease (now in remission) and back problems had taken the fight out of him. Youíd have back problems too if you had to carry the Pens on yours for a decade.

Although his number was retired by the team and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame — four-year waiting period be damned — Lemieux still had a P.R. problem. Gretzky, all smiles and easy access, was hockeyís hero, while Lemieux, media-shy and coldly businesslike, was blamed for selfishly not promoting the sport.

The rehabilitation started in 1999, when Lemieux decided to save the bankrupt Penguins from being sold off and carted south. As their biggest creditor, he took the $20 million they owed him, added $5 million of his own and got 35% of the franchise. He built a local ownership group to buy the rest. Once again, Lemieux put up good numbers: he turned losses of $16 million from the previous season into a profit of $47,000 in 2000, his first year. "Based on all the elements that came into play, I donít think anyone else could have done it, because of how revered he is in Pittsburgh," says NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. If, when he returned to the ice this season, he didnít turn it into wine, the cult was going to be in serious trouble.

The cult was not disappointed. In his first game back, Lemieux, now 35, had two goals and an assist. By the end of the regular season, he was sometimes skating all the way back to defense — something he didnít do even the first time around. Almost as impressive, the new Lemieux is willing to tell jokes and sit still for interviews, knowing as an owner that it pays to flash a smile. Why else spend all that money on fake teeth?

One of the reasons Lemieux returned, in addition to the fact that his youngest son had never seen Dad skate, was that the NHL has cracked down on the slashing, hooking and other dirtball tactics with which opponents had once hampered Lemieuxís play. In the play-offs, though, refs swallow their whistles, and Super Mario (mild-mannered owner by day, ruthless player by night) was less a hero than a target. "It was different early in the season," he says. "It was more open then."

Lemieux says he would have played again even if the Pens had stayed solvent. "I missed the game," he says. "Being part of the ownership group made me realize how much I missed it." He says he wants to play "as long as my body will allow me."

During the play-offs, Lemieux took a break from his day job as owner, focusing solely on his role as employee. "Iíve been a player all my life, so itís the easiest thing to do," he says. His teammates donít hit him up for raises in the locker room, and he doesnít keep tabs on how next yearís trade bait is performing. Not once this year, he says, did he catch himself counting the gate when he was on the ice. "I donít have to," he says, speaking very much like management. "Itís always sold out."