PITTSBURGH -- The smile never left Mario Lemieux's face Friday morning.
From the moment he stepped on the Heinz Field ice surface -- last among the 50 players to take part in the alumni game that kicked off the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic weekend -- to the moment he reluctantly ducked his head into the tunnel leading to the dressing room with the screams of the fans still ringing in his ears, Lemieux was once again in his preferred element, playing the game he loves with his peers.
"It was fun to be a part of it, play here outdoors," Lemieux said after the game between his Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals' alumni team ended in a 5-5 tie. "The weather was beautiful. I saw some old faces again, guys I haven’t seen for a long time, some guys from the Cup years and older guys. It was pretty special for all of us. These are memories that we can cherish for a long time."
Lemieux, who finished with two assists, started making memories almost immediately. He was held back during the introductions, allowed to enter Heinz Field alone, once again spurned on by the taped rendition of long-time PA announcer John Barbero, who passed away this past July.
Then, on just his second shift of the game, Lemieux assisted on the game-opening goal by Rob Brown just 4:22 into the game.
Even so, it was his second assist of the game that truly harkened back to the days when he was the biggest sporting star in this hockey-mad city, routinely rewriting the team's and League's record books.
On that play, which staked Pittsburgh to a 5-4 lead, Mario took control of the puck along the sidewall, passed to Larry Murphy on the point and watched as Murphy picked out Ron Francis on the left doorstep of the Washington crease for the ridiculously simple one-timer. Amazingly, all three players are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"You can see clearly why they were so good," Bill Guerin told NHL.com. "Besides their skill, they just all get along so well. You can tell that bond is there."
Lemieux admitted the bond he shared with so many of the players who showed up for Friday's affair was one of the biggest factors in drawing him out of the executive boardroom to play his first organized game since retirement.
Despite the rust, the the Cup-era Penguins -- Lemieux, Francis and Murphy among them -- quickly appeared to feel like they were once again turning the Steel City into their personal playground, the cheers of the Igloo crowd reverberating across the city's numerous suspension bridges and throughout the Western Pennsylvania countryside.
"It looked like we knew what we were doing," Lemieux said, still wearing the ever-present smile he sported throughout the game. "It was pretty much the same setup we had 20 years ago."
While the fans who filled the east side of the stadium would have loved for Le Manifique to score a hat trick in his return, they were more than happy, in the end, just to see Mario once again eating up a Pittsburgh ice surface with his famous stride.
"He was out there having a good time," former teammate Kevin Stevens told pittsburghpenguins.com. "It was a lot of fun just getting out there and watching him play. Everyone was having fun. There were a lot of laughs and guys tried to crank it up a bit. I think as the game went on, everyone tried to get the puck to him."
That's the bond that Guerin spoke of earlier. Lemieux has performed so many heroics for this franchise that it is the default setting for many of them to try to get the puck to No. 66 in the telling moments of any contest.
"When (Lemieux) gets around these guys, he's just one of the guys," Guerin said. "You can see why they were so good, why they had a special team. They're close and he's still the top dog. They still call him 'Ace.'"
Friday's game was played under near-perfect conditions -- temperatures in the mid-to-upper 30s and intermittent patches of sunshine and overcast -- and the players responded with a sublime show.
Brown, Rod Buskas and Craig Simpson scored for the Penguins in the first 20 minutes, but those goals were answered by Capitals alums Alan May, Paul Mulvey and Mark Lofthouse -- wearing Alex Ovechkin's No. 8 jersey.
Mulvey, with his second goal of the game, gave the Capitals the lead early in the second half and made him the top scorer in a game loaded with All-Stars and Hall of Famers.
"It was a very exciting event," Mulvey told NHL.com. "Just entering the stadium and seeing impact of how big this event is, it was really special. It was a very rock star-ish moment."
Jay Caulfield tied the game at 4-all with a booming slap shot, setting the stage for what many would assume would be Lemieux's final bit of heroics in a Penguin uniform.
Lemieux did deliver with his secondary assist on Francis' go-ahead goal, but Peter Bondra -- a Penguin-killer during his playing days -- reprised the role of villain and scored the game-tying goal with 44.3 seconds left in the contest.
"Bondra scores the game-tier as usual," Stevens said. "He comes in and rips one top shelf. I wasn’t surprised. If anyone was going to score over there, it was going to be him."
In the end, the 5-5 tie seemed a fitting conclusion to the morning's activities, an appetizer for the fierce rivalry the two organizations will rekindle Saturday afternoon in the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic here.
"It would have been nice to have a winner, but at this stage in our lives, we’re OK with it," Pittsburgh's Troy Loney said.