Pittsburgh Penguins captain Mario Lemieux has declined a spot on Team Canada at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.
However, he could resume workouts and skating in a week.
Lemieux spoke to the media Saturday for the first time since he was admitted to a Pittsburgh hospital on Wednesday for observation of an irregular heartbeat. The condition was diagnosed as atrial fibrillation and Lemieux was relieved to learn medication could regulate the problem.
“I am feeling pretty good actually. I have been feeling pretty good the last couple of days with the medication I am taking now,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s just going to get better from now on.”
Lemieux has been experiencing episodes of an irregular heartbeat since the summer and was not able to get a proper diagnosis until Wednesday and Thursday, when he was discharged from a hospital.
“It started this summer, probably around June. It’s been on and off all summer, training camp,” he said. “The most-recent one was in Tampa [on Nov. 27], where it lasted over a day, day and a half. This recent one was over a day. This was not the first time [it happened] and we just didn’t know what it was at the time, but we were able to catch it the last time I went to the hospital right away. They put me on a monitor right away and were able to diagnose what I have now [atrial fibrillation].”
Near the end of Wednesday’s practice, Lemieux knew something felt strange.
“Yeah it was pretty scary, especially when you don’t know what it is. It happened at the end of practice on Wednesday and it just didn’t stop for a while, so I was pretty scared until I really found out what it was,” he said. “I would get dizzy and have to sit down for a few minutes. That’s really what happened [Wednesday at] practice. The last drill, I started to get dizzy and I think [Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk] saw my face and called practice, which I was pretty glad.”
Lemieux, who has overcome various ailments in the past 20 years, doesn’t expect this condition to end his career, either.
“No. I have talked to a lot of people the last couple days. There are a lot of people who have it and they are able to regulate it with medication. So, from talking to the doctors and a lot of people who have it, I wouldn’t think it’s going to have an impact on my life,” he said. “It’s something that’s pretty simple that can be taken care of with medication. I have to see the doctors on Monday and do another stress test, which is a lot of fun, just to make sure the medication is working properly and go from there and hopefully start skating soon.”
There is no target date for Lemieux’s return to the lineup, but he is eager to get back on the ice.
“Hopefully, by next week I will be able to get back on the ice and start skating again – really go by the doctors and how I feel,” he said. “Hopefully, the sooner, the better. I would like to probably start next week if I am able to.”
Lemieux hopes to feel rejuvenated upon his return. He has 21 points (7+14) in 25 games played this season, but believes the heart condition substantially impeded his play.
“I think it was a big part of it. The symptoms are fatigue and sluggishness all the time, which I was on the ice, and not being able to have any jump,” he said. “From talking to people who have it, sometimes you don’t realize that that is what is happening to you and a lot of people don’t feel it. So, I was lucky enough that I was able to feel it, diagnose it and regulate it with medication. Hopefully, I will start to feel a little better and have a little jump when I get back on the ice.”
The condition also contributed to Lemieux’s decision to decline the spot reserved for him on Team Canada for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.
“I talked to [Wayne Gretzky] a couple days ago and I told him that I would pass on the Olympics. It was tough; I knew he was counting on me. With the way I have been playing so far and with the young guys we have coming up in Canada – I think the best thing to do is to go with the young guys, the young legs,” Lemieux said. “With [Ottawa’s Jason] Spezza playing very well and Sid [Crosby] and [Carolina’s Eric] Staal and all these guys, I think it’s time for these guys to step up and they deserve to be on the team. So, I called Gretzky and let him know a couple days ago.”
It didn’t prevent a Team Canada entourage, including Gretzky, from making a visit to Mellon Arena for Saturday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche.
“I think he is coming to see a couple guys from Colorado and Sidney,” Lemieux said. “I think he is well aware of who is playing well right now and the young kids coming up. These guys are going to be part of Team Canada for a long time and they should be a part of it starting this year.”
Lemieux believes Crosby, his teammate, should be on Team Canada’s squad for the Olympics. Crosby, who resides with the Lemieux family, leads the Penguins with 29 points (13+16).
“Absolutely, I think he should be on the team. He is going to be part of Team Canada for the next 15-20 years,” Lemieux said. “Even if he goes there and doesn’t play a whole lot, just to have the experience of playing with these guys and practicing with these guys for a week to 10 days…I know, when I played for Team Canada back in ’87 [at the Canada Cup], it really changed my career. I am sure it would help Sidney quite a bit to be in that environment.”
Lemieux captained Team Canada to the gold medal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was hoping to possibly win a second-straight gold.
“I thought it was my last shot in 2002. It is always tough [to turn down a chance to play again]. I enjoyed playing in the 2002 Olympics, especially winning the gold,” he said. “It was a great experience and I would’ve loved to be there this year, but considering my play so far, the way I’ve been feeling and some of the young guys we have for Team Canada, I think it’s much better to go that route.”