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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

History has a unique way of repeating itself. But this?

The Penguins play host to the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday night at Mellon Arena, exactly five years to the day after Mario Lemieux made his dramatic return to the ice to lead a 5-0 victory over the Leafs on Dec. 27, 2000– and light up the entire NHL.

“It was one of those remarkable moments that you remember forever,” said Ken Sawyer, president of the Penguins, who has been involved in professional hockey for more than 20 years. “There really has been nothing else like it. For Mario to come back was amazing enough. For him to get three points in his first game after not playing for three-and-a-half years … well, there’s not much more you can say.”

Lemieux sent tremors of excitement through the sports world in early December, 2000 when he confirmed reports that he planned to return to the ice after a three-and-a-half year retirement. He had not played a game since April, 1997, but he was still only 35 years old – and he was convinced he had more hockey left in him.

Following a throbbing opening ceremony that saw Lemieux’s “retired” No. 66 symbolically lowered from the Arena rafters, he wasted little time proving it. Lemieux picked up an assist on Jaromir Jagr’s goal just 33 seconds into the game, and he finished with a goal and two assists as the Penguins steamrolled the Leafs – who just happened to get in the way of history, and paid for it.

“Getting that point on his first shift – that’s the kind of dramatic thing the Big Guy has always done in his career,” said Eddie Johnston, the Penguins’ assistant general manager, who drafted Lemieux out of Laval of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 1984. “He scored a goal on his first shift in the NHL. He scored the winning goal in the (1987 Canada Cup). He was MVP of the All-Star Game when it was in Pittsburgh. And both times this team made it to the finals, he won the Conn Smythe.(as playoff MVP).

“He’s the kind of guy who always rose to the occasion. Always.”

Lemieux finished with remarkable numbers that year – 35 goals and 41 assists for 76 points in 43 games – and helped lead the Penguins to the Eastern Conference finals.

It is an unfortunate irony that, although Lemieux remains an active player this year at age 40, with 22 points in 26 games, he won’t be playing in the anniversary game. He is in the midst of a two-week evaluation period, while doctors readjust the medication to control a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation. So he will have to watch from above.

No other players or coaches from the 2000-01 Penguins remain with the club. The memories, though, belong to the fans – especially the 17,000 who jammed Mellon Arena that night, showing up so early that the building was virtually filled for the pre-game warmup, and cheering from the first drop of the puck. They’ll appreciate the anniversary – and always cherish that moment in time.

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