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At 43, Lemieux returns to NHL with Sharks

Monday, 01.19.2009 / 6:32 PM / News

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

In his prime, Claude Lemieux had the reputation of skating to the beat of his own drum.

He was adored by his fans and teammates and was "Public Enemy No. 1" to the opposition with his free-wheeling, agitating style of play. Whatever side you were on, it's tough to discount the results -- Lemieux has won four Stanley Cup rings and a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 17 NHL seasons.

San Jose Sharks Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson, who recalled Lemieux from the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Worcester Monday, hopes the 43-year-old right wing can make it five.

"You always look for ways to improve your hockey team and, historically, whether in the NHL or any other sport, people who return to the game usually have similar attributes," Wilson said. "One is having a true love for the game; two is having a high level of hockey intelligence to think the game and, third, is being genetically gifted. Claude is not only built and gifted, but he's put in the work and the energy and I know his passion and love for the game.

"He's the type of guy you didn't want to see on the other team, but loved to have him in your dressing room."

Lemieux, who signed a tryout contract with San Jose in November with the intent of making a comeback following a five-year hiatus, played 23 games with Worcester and posted 3 goals, 11 points, 24 penalty minutes and a plus-2 rating. He could be in the lineup as early as Tuesday when the Sharks play host to the Vancouver Canucks.

"I didn't look at statistics because if I did, I probably would have gotten discouraged knowing that the odds were not favorable and totally against (a comeback)," Lemieux said. "I've been known to be strong-minded and I've been very stubborn and the more that I was told that this was impossible and couldn't be done, the more I wanted it.

"This is my first step in my comeback into the NHL and, obviously, I needed to be recalled (from Worcester) before that happened. But I'm here and that's the first step because I want to be playing for this team and helping them win every night."

Despite not skating in the NHL since 2002-03, when he played 36 games with the Phoenix Coyotes, Lemieux is confident he'll be able to contribute as he did with the five other teams he's performed with throughout this career.

"This is a team that has the best record in the League (33 wins, 71 points) and has a lot of gifted players from top to bottom," Lemieux said. "I've always brought a physical presence and was someone that was sort of a pain in the rear to play against so that's what I feel I can add to this team. Regardless what team you play for, if you can bring that element to the game, I think it's something that team's are always looking for. I want to bring my physical presence to the Sharks and help them win more hockey games."

He's as excited now as he was in 1983, when he earned his first cup of coffee in the NHL with the Canadiens.

"The excitement is probably about the same; the only difference now is I know what to expect," Lemieux said. "I've done this before so it's going to help. You have to control your emotions and while it's good to be excited, I still got to be able to play the game. I've worked really hard to get to this point and to have a chance to live this dream again is great."

Wilson admitted the coaches and players in Worcester are extremely happy for Lemieux.

"We've had some injuries, but if you've watched us, we have used 6-7 players from Worcester to fill that fourth-line role with significant minutes," Wilson said. "I told Claude that if it got to the point where he was viewed as the best person for that role, he would be at the top of the list. Claude went down to Worcester and earned the respect of those players and that coaching staff and is considered an in-house player now. Todd (McLellen) has been keeping a close eye on him and he's deserved this chance. His teammates in Worcester are happy for him and know that he put in the work and he's here because he deserves to be here."

As if those contests with the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings haven't been heated enough this season, now this.
 
Imagine what was going through the mind of Wings enforcer Darren McCarty when he learned of Lemieux's desire to return to the NHL. If you'll recall, the infamous brawl during the 1997 season between the Wings and the Colorado Avalanche, the team Lemieux played for that season, featured the two players. In fact, Lemieux ranked first in a poll conducted by ESPN entitled "The Top 10 Most Hated NHL Players of All Time."

But in addition to his feistiness, Lemieux brings an insatiable desire to succeed. He's one of only eight players in NHL history to win the Cup with three different teams -- the Canadiens, Avalanche and Devils -- and his 80 career playoff goals rank among the top 10 in League annals. The Sharks and Wings, currently seeded first and second, respectively, in the Western Conference, meet for the fourth and final time in the regular season on Feb. 25 in Detroit. The Sharks have won two of the previous three encounters.

"I was part of a lot of great rivalries over the years, including Montreal-Quebec, New Jersey-Boston, New Jersey-New York (Rangers) and Colorado-Detroit," Lemieux said. "Rivalries are great and they're great for the sport. Top teams always like to measure up and Detroit has proven in the past 15 years they are a great team."

 
 
On three occasions throughout his career, Lemieux scored more goals during the Stanley Cup Playoffs than he did in the regular season, including 1985-86 with the Canadiens, 1994-95 with the Devils and 1996-97 with the Avalanche. He played two games with the China Sharks, San Jose's affiliate in Shanghai, earlier this season while determining whether or not he was fit enough to make a return.

In September, New Jersey Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner told Rich Chere of The Star-Ledger that Lemieux's biggest obstacle might be adjusting to today's pace.

"The game has changed since the last time he played. It isn't the same," Langenbrunner told Chere. "Anytime you don't do something for that long, I would think it's got to be tough to play at this level, but we all know how competitive a player he was and how competitive a guy he is."

Lemieux feels the pace of the game hasn't changed.

"This is my first step in my comeback into the NHL and, obviously, I needed to be recalled (from Worcester) before that happened. But I'm here and that's the first step because I want to be playing for this team and helping them win every night." -- Claude Lemieux
"A lot of folks talk about the game not being as physical, but I think it's even more physical than it was back in the day," he said. "There's less holding, no grabbing, less stick infractions and no interference so players have a wide open lane for physical contact. I felt the game was very physical on the AHL level and from what I've watched in the NHL, it's very physical. That's always been a big part of my game, so I think it'll be just fine."

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.


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