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Lemieux's comeback amazes and inspires

by Eric Stephens
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Todd Marchant raised an eyebrow when he heard about it. No doubt, there were countless others like him throughout the hockey world that had the same reaction.

Claude Lemieux was planning to come back to the NHL at the age of 43 after not playing a single NHL game in over five years. Seriously?


"At first, you're kind of shocked," said the 35-year-old Marchant, a veteran of 14 full seasons. "You always think of a guy that going to come back, maybe he's been out a year, maybe two at the most. He's been out five years."

The competitive fire, it seems, had never burned out.

Lemieux was dead serious. For as he settled into his comfortable post-NHL life in Arizona as a general manager with the Phoenix Roadrunners of the ECHL, the famed agitator and clutch playoff performer thought to himself that he still had some game left in him. Still, the last time he suited up in the NHL was in 2002-03 when he split what seemed to be his final season with Phoenix and Dallas. Surely that was in the mind of many that were close to him.

Of the initial reaction he received when he announced his intentions, Lemieux said, "Well, surprise obviously. But very supportive. A lot of support from a lot of different sources. Former players, former coaches, fans."

Lemieux's comeback was fully realized Sunday night when he suited up for Game 2. It was his first playoff game since competing for Dallas against Anaheim in the 2003 Western Conference Semifinals. Playing on the fourth line, Lemieux was on the ice for a shade over five minutes and threw his 6-foot-1, 215-pound body around whenever he could. Mix it up. Get under someone's skin. Just like always.

"Oh, it was a great feeling," Lemieux said. "Just amazing to get the opportunity to be out there and be part of a playoff game like that. I look forward to every opportunity."

Lemieux sat again for Game 3 Tuesday night. Sharks coach Todd McLellan, however, said he liked what he saw out of the no-nonsense playoff veteran.

"I thought he skated well and got involved physically," McLellan said. "He was a very good presence in the locker room. He's been there before. He seems to be conducting himself in a real good manner as far as trying to lead and do the right things. He was effective when he was in."

It was last year when Lemieux made up his mind and launched his comeback bid. He began skating with the Central Hockey League's Arizona Sundogs, but not until he had already went through a grueling training program after allowing himself to creep up to 250 pounds.

"When you're out for that long, it's hard to go interview or talk about a comeback if you haven't shown that you're physically prepared and mentally willing to do this," he said. "So that was the key for me, to put in the work and then go feel around."

Lemieux began to contact some hockey people that he knew and scoured a number of different teams. One of those people was San Jose General Manager Doug Wilson, a good friend of his who listened with opened ears.

"We don't say no to anything," Wilson said. "You learn by listening and exploring many different things. Our people knew him well. I've known Claude for a long time. When somebody asks for an opportunity with no guarantees and no conditions to it, it's a freebie."

There was one caveat to making this feel-good story happen. Lemieux would pay his dues wherever the Sharks sent him.

It meant traveling to China to get his feet wet in the Asian Hockey League. Once Lemieux got his hockey juices flowing, Wilson sent him to Worcester, the Sharks' American Hockey League affiliate, in November.

With the Sharks, Lemieux showed he still had some game as he recorded 3 goals and 8 assists in 23 games. But then, the four-time Stanley Cup winner could always play, especially in the postseason where he has 80 goals and won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1995 with the New Jersey Devils.

"All we provided him with was the opportunity," Wilson said. "We're aware of his past. All he did when he called was say, 'Hey, can you give me a chance to see if I can play again.'

"We sent him to China with no promises and we sent him to Worcester. He went there with no promises on an American Hockey League deal in conjunction with our GM there to see if he can help that team win and bring something to the table, which he did."

In turn, Lemieux said his comeback is more than showing that he can still play.

"Just the opportunity to compete, to play, to train," he said. "To be around youth. It's very refreshing to be around young guys."

As he continued, Lemieux spoke about being part of a fraternity -- one that he could find no equal outside of it.

"Playing in front of thousands of fans, doing something that you love to do. The adrenaline rush, the nervousness, the love from the fans, the hate from the fans. Those are all the things you miss when you're done."
-- Claude Lemieux

"This is a unique world," the native of Buckingham, Quebec said, with sweat dripping from a brisk workout. "Being an athlete, you're not really living in the real world. I lived in the real world for four or five years. It's just very difficult to compare.

"Playing in front of thousands of fans, doing something that you love to do. The adrenaline rush, the nervousness, the love from the fans, the hate from the fans. Those are all the things you miss when you're done."

Wilson particularly wanted Lemieux around to serve as an example of the level of work one needs to put in day in and day out. The hope was that it would rub off on the young players at Worcester and in San Jose when he arrived.

The youngsters are impressed.

"He had a five-year summer," joked Devin Setoguchi, the Sharks' 22-year-old goal scorer. "Yeah, I mean it's crazy. He's probably one of the top-conditioned athletes on our team. He's a lot older than I am and he's probably in just as good a shape or even better than I'm in right now."

Having watched 47-year-old Chris Chelios on a daily basis during his three seasons as an assistant in Detroit, McLellan has seen up close the determination of some players to compete at the highest level, even at an advanced age where most would be working more on their golf game.

"There's two guys in my opinion," he said. "Chris Chelios and Claude Lemieux. I don't know if there's anybody else out there that could come back and do it like they're doing it.

"Not only is it physical for him but his mind is sharp. Mentally, he's quite alert. He's helped us out as a coaching staff immensely. He's helped his teammates in the locker room a lot."

Throughout his career, Lemieux always put himself in the middle of the action and his feisty style was loved by teammates and loathed by opponents. There was a reason why he's widely considered among the most hated NHL players of all time.
"In practice, he battles hard. He's a great guy to have on your side. He knows what it takes." -- Devin Setoguchi
"He was mean when he played," Setoguchi said. "In practice, he battles hard. He's a great guy to have on your side. He knows what it takes."

Now he's back in the action. It's the thrill of competition that Lemieux said is impossible to replicate.

"All the other athletes in other sports can relate," he said. "Athletes in general have a bond. When you meet up in charity events and different things like that, you have that special bond that you feel. When you see a former athlete, you have that highest level of respect for what they've done and they have that same respect for what you've done.

"It's just hard to relate to a normal working job. And it's fine. I worked in real estate and I enjoyed a new life in that regard. And it's rewarding. But there's nothing like it."
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