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Wednesday, 27 November, 2002, 02:56 GMT
Super Mario in no mood to quit
Mario Lemieux in action for the Penguins
Lemieux is still a key player for the Penguins

He is a player who retired too early, having achieved everything possible in his sport.

There was the multiple team championships, numerous individual scoring titles, and several Most Valuable Player awards.

Even in retirement he commanded more respect than any active player, and he used his influence to become the primary owner of a league franchise.

But the desire to compete still burned within him, prompting a return to the sport he loves.

Now he is back, splitting time between the boardroom and the locker room while playing for the team he owns.

I just want to have some fun, play as many games as I can

Mario Lemieux

And his name is not Michael Jordan. It is Mario Lemieux, owner and star of the National Hockey League's Pittsburgh Penguins.

Their situations may be similar, but there is one big difference - while Jordan seems to be a mere shadow of his former self, Lemieux is flourishing.

Through the Penguins' first 20 games, Lemieux has more assists (30) than any other player in the league has points (Dallas's Mike Modano is second on the NHL scoring list with 27 points).

Lemieux's 41 points leads all NHL scorers by a healthy margin, just like in the old days.

Unfortunately, 'healthy' is a word that has been associated with Lemieux far too infrequently.

The Penguins' centre has been burdened with countless injury woes throughout his career, including serious back problems, hip troubles, and a bout with Hodgkin's disease.

Michael Jordan in action for his Washington Wizards team
Michael Jordan's circumstances mirror Lemieux's

But Lemieux is healthier this season than he has been in quite some time and could play a full season of fixtures for the first time since 1997.

"Right now I'm feeling pretty good. I'm feeling healthy, in good condition," Lemieux said after winning the NHL's Player of the Month award for October.

"For this year, I just want to have some fun, play as many games as I can.

"If I do that - stay productive - I have a pretty good chance of competing for the scoring title. Especially at age 37, it would be special."

Seeing Lemieux compete for a scoring title would be special not just for the player himself but also for hockey fans across North America.

To watch Lemieux play is to witness possibly the greatest natural talent ever to play the game - though fans of Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr may queue up to dispute that.

Alexei Kovalev on the ice for the Penguins
Lemieux has helped Kovalev in particular

No less an authority than Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman called Lemieux "the best player I've seen since I got into the league in 1967."

Lemieux seems two steps ahead of everyone else on the ice, as if the players around him are in slow motion while he is moving at full speed.

As he did with Rob Brown and Kevin Stevens in his prime, Lemieux is turning a line mate - Alexei Kovalev, in this case - into one of the most dangerous goal scoring threats in the league, thanks to his deft passing.

If his bad back and nagging hip cooperate, maybe hockey fans will be lucky enough to experience the thrill of watching 'Super Mario' for a few more years to come.


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