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'Everybody wins' at Ninth Mario Lemieux Foundation Fantasy Hockey Camp

by Mark Madden / 105.9 the X

It's the very best of its kind: A professional, well-run hockey camp that features big-name ex-NHLers including, arguably, the biggest name of all-time.

That big name is Mario Lemieux. At function's end, he could be seen dining at a table otherwise full of campers. Just a regular guy.

The ex-pros mostly try to make the amateurs look good: A goal-mouth feed, or a shot-pass for a tip. (Lack of hockey instinct occasionally betrays the campers: When Jay Caufield dished a shot-pass, his target abandoned the spot the puck went to by way of not wanting drilled. That didn't stop Caufield from trying it again later.)

The ex-pros mostly line up on defense and don't try to score. Except Darius Kasparaitis, who lined up on defense but tried to score: Witness a goal and two assists in the championship game. (He lobbied for MVP.)

Nobody hit. Except Kasparaitis, who flipped a few campers with hip checks in a non-violent, good-natured way. That's what you get when you pay for the Kasparaitis experience. (Should have had their heads up.)

At 58, Paul Coffey can still move.

Joe Mullen is 62. But he frequently plays, including with the Boston Bruins alumni, and it shows.

Max Talbot's last pro campaign was just last season, in the Russian-based KHL. He jokes that tournament director Nancy Angus has urged him to retire for a few years so he could start playing in the event.

The coaches are ex-NHLers, too, and they don't sandbag. They actually coach, and for the entire length of games. Eddie Johnston and Craig Patrick. Bryan Trottier and Randy Hillier. Former New York Islander Clark Gillies was the winning coach, following up his 1975 triumph in Pittsburgh. (The less said about that, the better.)

One of these years, Pierre Larouche will get a defensively sound team. (There's undeniably a bit of irony there.)

There's a little risk: Colby Armstrong clocked a goalie in the melon with a shot. (He was OK.)

It's low-key. There's no media. (I was just there to eat, drink and watch hockey. Duh.)

Lemieux's game is still elegant: Then, now and always.

At the end, one team gets a trophy. But everybody wins.

It all adds up to the Mario Lemieux Foundation Fantasy Hockey Camp. Angus, the Foundation's executive director, tirelessly led her crew through the camp's ninth year. Lemieux is extremely hands-on. His accessibility during the camp is unparalleled.

Some campers have attended each of the nine years, and there are many repeat attendees beyond that.

Everything is first-class, from the custom jerseys to the facilities to the equipment staff.

But the biggest selling point is playing hockey with Lemieux on the NHL ice of PPG Paints Arena. The event is stocked with Hall-of-Famers and Stanley Cup rings, but no star shines brighter than Mario's.

Lemieux plays for all four teams, so everybody gets to be No. 66's teammate.

The championship game was fraught with controversy, though: Lemieux was supposed to switch teams at the halfway point. But he remained with Gillies' winning team for the contest's entirety, provoking mock outrage from opposing coach Johnston. (Perhaps Lemieux just didn't want to play against Kasparaitis.)

Hockey is always a lot of fun.

But it's never more fun than at Lemieux's fantasy camp.

Here's looking forward to the tenth event next year. And perhaps someday, the Sidney Crosby fantasy camp.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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