Lemieux masks greatness behind his casual style just like another great

Phil Jackman

May 26, 1992|By Phil Jackman

Mario Lemieux and Ben Hogan have about as much in common as Don Knotts and another Hogan, first name Hulk.

The former is huge, 6 feet 4 and 210 pounds, with the wingspan of a jumbo jet. Meanwhile, "Bantam Ben" was aptly nicknamed at about 5-8 and 150.

However, there is a time while watching the toast of Pittsburgh hockey perform that a parallel to the legendary golfer from Texas leaps out at you.

It was late in Hogan's career at the Masters, when a longtime competitor of Ben's, after watching him card a precision 67, said, "That guy knows something about hitting a golf ball that the rest of us don't."

Same goes for Lemieux when he laces up the skates and hits the ice. The talent doesn't hit you full force immediately, because Mario does things with such casual effort it appears as if he's only partially interested.

So what does it say about everybody else in the game when Lemieux can be so dominant simply by showing up and doing what comes so naturally?

A player, especially one as good as All-Star Kevin Stevens, plays alongside a teammate for a couple of seasons and there's a tendency for things to be taken for granted.

Sure, everyone knows Mario is a fantastic player, the best in the NHL; still, his exploits just never seem to stop amazing Stevens.

"Most of the time, for the last two months, he hasn't even been able to practice [because of injuries]," says Stevens. "Yet any time he goes out there, he moves around for five or 10 minutes and you know he's ready."

He proved his readiness in Pittsburgh's come-from-behind playoff opener against Washington when, while recovering from a slightly separated shoulder and skating just three times in 21 days, he scored 17 points in the last six games of the series.

Sent to the sidelines with a broken bone in his left hand a few nights later, Mario came back in less than two weeks and celebrated with two goals and an assist during the team's semifinal sweep of the Boston Bruins.

It's after just such displays over the last two postseasons that one begins to sense a sort of mystical leadership Mario wields over his mates. No matter how grim the situation, the Penguins feel they'll be OK just so long as Lemieux is somewhere in the arena.

His usual reaction to his accomplishments is, "Well, that's my job." And his explanation of the style that sees him swoop around in the neutral zone as if oblivious to anyone else being on the ice is just as matter-of-fact:

"I spend so much time on the ice [more than 30 minutes consistently], I can't skate around at a hundred miles an hour all the time. I try to lead the play, then explode my energy when I get the puck."

A classic example of just such an explosion occurred the other night in Boston. The Bruins had four skaters to Pittsburgh's three when Mario picked off a pass at mid-ice. Two players, including the best defender in the game, Ray Bourque, stood between Mario and the Boston goal. And in net was tough Andy Moog.

Lemieux not only squeezed his huge frame through a tiny opening, he slipped the puck through with him. He regained his balance in one more push off his left skate and flicked the game-deciding goal past Moog. All with one hand. Poor Bourque, a perennial All-Star and Norris Trophy winner, was made to look like a Central League journeyman.

"I put the puck at his feet to get his attention," said Lemieux. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't." With Mario, everything he does works.

Presently, it there has been a hotter team than the defending Stanley Cup champs during the past month, it's the Penguins opponent tonight in Game 1 of the Cup finale, Chicago.

While the Pens have won seven straight and haven't really been pressured since required to come back from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate Washington, the Blackhawks have won 11 in a row, making mulch out of St. Louis, Detroit and Edmonton.

Until sweeping Boston, the Penguins had fallen behind in their six previous playoff series during the past two springs. "We usually take a game to adjust," says Mario.

Maybe, just maybe, hockey isn't the only sport seemingly made for Lemieux. A teammate tells of several Penguins venturing out to a golf course they had never seen before a while back. A goodly crowd showed up to watch and Mario toured the layout in 2-under-par. Perhaps he's on to Hogan's secret.

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