If Claude Lemieux’s first day was an example of his work ethic, Sharks fans will like what they see. With the familiar No. 32 on the back of his helmet, Lemieux was the first player on the ice at Sharks Ice at San Jose for Monday’s practice.
“It’s a dream come true again,” the 43-year-old Lemieux said. “Today was a great first practice. The excitement is probably about the same (as my first game).”
The first game will come on Tuesday against the Vancouver Canucks at HP Pavilion.
“Claude will get a chance to play on the fourth line tomorrow and we expect him to provide a little energy,” Coach Todd McLellan said. McLellan also said Lemieux’s linemates will be Tomas Plihal and Jody Shelley.
McLellan wasn’t going to put any unrealistic expectations on a player who could be the father of some of the younger players and hasn’t played an NHL game in five years.
“I think in fairness to Claude, we’ll see how he feels and where he can contribute,” McLellan said.
When asked why he wanted to return five years later, Lemieux stated the obvious.
“Why not? It’s the best job in the world,” said Lemieux.
Lemieux may be past the day of carrying a team, but a big part of his promotion was due to the resurgence the Worcester Sharks found upon his signing. After a slow start, the Sharks American Hockey League affiliate is now third in the Atlantic Division.
“It’s based on merit and Worcester playing very well when he was there,” Executive Vice President and General Manger Doug Wilson said. “Roy (Worcester Head Coach Roy Sommer) will tell you Claude had a lot to do with Worcester being in second place. Take a look at how the team was playing when he was there.”
Wilson sees Lemieux’s presence as nothing but a positive.
“It’s a no lose, no risk scenario,” Wilson said. “If he can make us a better hockey team, great. It’s very simple.”
Lemieux’s return to the National Hockey League wasn’t as easy as a snap. Lemieux first started skating with the Central Hockey League’s Arizona Sundogs in September and eventually moved across the Pacific Ocean to play with the China Sharks in the Asian Hockey League. Following success there, the next hurdle was to play in Worcester against players biding for a spot in the NHL.
“He was riding the buses and playing three games in four nights,” Wilson said.
“Worcester was great,” Lemieux said.
“He’s great,” defenseman Derek Joslin, who was Lemieux’s teammate in Worcester, said. “He’s a team guy who kept things lively in the room. He’s always joking, but he’s really intense on game day. When he first showed up, he had a meeting on the ice with everyone and told us it was his dream to make it back. We know how much he worked for this. It’s a huge accomplishment for him.”
Besides his hard work, Lemieux was graced with a terrific hockey mind and he has the benefit of the body not taking any abuse the past five seasons.
“The odometer hasn’t been rolling,” Wilson said. “He has a high hockey IQ.”
Lemieux made an impression on his young teammates in Worcester.
“He was zero maintenance and no distraction down there,” Wilson said.
One thing’s for sure: center Jeremy Roenick and defenseman Rob Blake, both 39 years old, aren’t the oldest on the Sharks any more.
“I feel like a young kid again,” Roenick said with a smile.
ANOTHER SHARKS ALL-STAR?
Look for an NHL announcement soon about center Patrick Marleau
joining McLellan, Joe Thornton
and Dan Boyle
on the Western Conference All-Star Team.
BEATING THE BUSHES
Wilson hasn’t been around San Jose much recently. He was at the World Junior Tournament and then went to the NHL’s top prospects game and attended the team’s scouting meetings.
“We were able to get our mid-season reports,” Wilson said. “The staff works hard.”
Two players, goaltenders Timo Pielmeier and Harri Sateri
, caught Wilson’s attention at the WJC.
“Timo and Harri performed well at the World Juniors,” Wilson said. “Timo was the player of the game when we watched him against Finland.”
REMEMBERING THE DREAM
For two Sharks players, the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has a bit of extra special meaning for right wing Mike Grier and Joslin, both of whom are of African decent.
“He’s a great man who helped out a lot of people,” Grier said of King. “Many people didn’t think they would see this (Barack Obama being elected as president) in their lifetime.”
Joslin is of mixed decent and from Canada, but he said King’s legacy is still large north of the border.
“My dad is half and I’m a quarter,” Joslin said of his African heritage. “We heard a lot about him growing up.”
The Sharks will play hosts to the Vancouver Canucks Tuesday night in their final contest before the All-Star Game. The contest will be available on CSN Bay Area, 98.5 KFOX and sjsharks.com. Tickets can be found at the HP Pavilion Ticket Office and at www.ticketmaster.com