"It's been really fun and refreshing getting up every morning, training, changing my daily routine from the last four or five years to where I was my whole life before, when I was playing pro hockey. I'm back to doing what I love most and it feels great."
-- Claude Lemieux
Lemieux still had the passion, but circumstances were conspiring against him. There were injuries, a league that was consistently getting younger, and the advice of those close to him who pushed for retirement.
Lemieux came to regret the decision and opted to do something about it. He signed with the Worcester Sharks, the San Jose Sharks' AHL affiliate, and will see if he came make it back to the NHL.
"I thought that I should've kept playing and was regretting my decision to retire for a while now," Lemieux told NHL.com. "Not having pursued my will to play and probably listening to too many people's advice to retire, it was hard on me for so long. I've wanted to do this for a while."
In June, Lemieux put his feelings into action. He began a serious training regimen that he believed would determine whether he could pursue a comeback or not.
"This past June I really got serious about it and started training to see if this could really happen," he said. "If I felt good, I'd push myself to the next level and do something I've never done before, hire a personal trainer. I saw immediate results and knew I could seriously try this. So in July, I really trained hard with the trainer and skated a lot."
Once Lemieux knew he could handle the workload and began to get his legs back, he elevated the comeback process to another level, skating with Anaheim Ducks forward Brad May in August and by the end of the month with Coyotes players who had returned to Phoenix (where Lemieux resides now), to prepare for training camp.
"I started to skate with Brad May in August in Utah just to see how I would feel on the ice," Lemieux said. "We trained for a while up there and I was feeling great. That's when I really knew how much I missed the game and then when I skated with some Coyotes players that came back to Phoenix early before training camp, I knew I could go through with this and do it."
For Lemieux, the last five months have been invigorating and brought a welcome change of pace. He had been involved in commercial real estate and running hockey camps, but due to the struggling economy, the former had become a dormant business.
"The economy had really started to kill business and I didn't have much else going on, so this seemed like a good to time to shift all my focus onto hockey again and start this comeback," Lemieux said. "It's been really fun and refreshing getting up every morning, training, changing my daily routine from the last four or five years to where I was my whole life before, when I was playing pro hockey. I'm back to doing what I love most and it feels great."
Lemieux had actually played in pick-up and charity games over the last five years, but as he pointed out, nothing can compare to the daily conditioning and skating.
"You play in those games and, yeah, it's nice to get out there on the ice again and use your hands or get your shot off, but it doesn't compare to what I've been doing the last four months, both training and scrimmaging with the Coyotes players there," he said. That was the key for me, to play with them and be at that speed. Obviously it will be increased even more when I get into games here in the AHL and hopefully the NHL."
As Lemieux's comeback began to take shape he contacted seven to eight teams to gauge their interest. The Sharks were one of the first to get back to him. Lemieux has always respected Sharks GM Doug Wilson and, regardless of how this comeback goes, he is grateful Wilson has given him an opportunity.
"I called seven or eight teams to just get an opportunity, that's all I wanted was an opportunity and Doug Wilson has given me that," he said. "I've always respected Doug as a player, manager and a person, and I'm grateful for this opportunity."
But Lemieux wanted Wilson and the hockey world to know he wasn't just thankful, he is intent on making Wilson look good for giving him this chance.
"This isn't lip service here, I'm very serious about this and believe I can eventually help this team," he said.
Lemieux had an assist and a plus-2 rating in his first game, Nov. 28, and through four games, he has a goal, an assist, a plus-1 rating and two penalty minutes.
When asked about the way the game has changed since he last played in 2003 with the Dallas Stars, Lemieux didn't believe he will need to change that much of his style.
"Of course there's been a lot of changes to the game, the red line is gone, it's faster, there's less interference, but this is still a physical game," he pointed out. "You look at even the stars of the game today, the top scorers and all of them are physical players too, (Sidney) Crosby, (Alex) Ovechkin, (Jarome) Iginla, they're all physical when they're at their best. So I have that going for me and I plan on playing like I always did.
"Look at (Chris) Chelios, (Jeremy) Roenick and (Bill) Guerin, they're still competing so why not me?" he asked. "I believe I can do this and I'm ready."
Lemieux has the blessings of his family, especially his children, a 12-old son and 11-year-old daughter from his second marriage, as well as his two teenage sons from his first marriage.
"They have been so great with this and support me tremendously," he said. "In fact, my youngest son has been urging me to play, telling me I'm a free agent and can still play because he never got to really watch my career, like to older ones."
Lemieux's two older sons are also striving to reach the pros one day, but Lemieux joked that despite their youth and size, he always reminds them he's the big guy.
"They're both bigger than me and I'd love to see them make it, but I'll always be the Big Chief" the 43-year-old, four-time Stanley Cup champion laughed. "I'm hoping they can see me play in the NHL again and I'm happy to have the chance to give them that."