Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Goodbye Mario

Yesterday's announcement of retirement for #66 was hardly unexpected, as the signs had been pointing to this finale for some time, but regardless, it was still a sad day in hockey.

Anytime you lose a player with not only his immense skillset, but also his class, it's a loss for everyone.

I do have a confession to make: prior to him coming back in the winter of 2000, I wasn't a big Mario Lemieux fan.

Sure, I was an admirer of his abilities, and respected what he'd accomplished on the ice (how can you not?), but if you were to ask me to name my favorite 10 players in the game from 1990 to, say, 1997, his name would never come up. And a lot of that was because of how Mario carried himself.

A pro athlete has every right to be reserved. To treat his job as just that, a profession. That's what Mario did. Mario was never unprofessional, but at the same time, he also didn't seem to approach playing the way most elite players do. He was ridiculously good at it, but it didn't seem like he had the passion of a Wayne Gretzky or Mark Messier or even Brett Hull.

It was almost like he was given these abilities and was just putting them to use. So much of what he did seemed effortless, where as a lot of his contemporaries, though unquestionably skilled, had to work at it at least a bit.

Who else but Mario could've come back from a three year hiatus and make the kind of impact he did right away? I'd imagine it's a short, short list.

However, upon his return, it looked like a different Super Mario. He was having fun, enjoying himself. A lot of that had to be because he was away from the game for so long and realized he'd taken it for granted, I'm sure. He laughed more. Smiled. Even with his team often struggling and the future of the franchise in doubt as they unloaded impact player after impact player to rivals for prospects and cash.

Him playing for Canada was also tremendous. You can't knock a guy for not wanting to play during his spare time, especially when they have a family, so no one crucified Mario for not suiting up in the maple leaf very often, but him doing so upon his return warmed the hearts of many, and most of all it seemed, Mario. Here was a guy who'd done it all, won two Cups, numerous trophies, and yet he was battling like every other guy on the team.

No superstar ego. No "put the focus on me" attitude.

The once cold and standoffish Mario was replaced by a warmer, fuzzier version upon his return. It's a shame that Mario couldn't have played longer.

Thanks for the memories.


At 2:03 AM, Blogger James Mirtle said...

It's a good observation. The changed Mario was the result of something few expected — he just missed the game that much. I'm not even sure Lemieux thought he'd enjoy a comeback that much. Aside from the losing, of course.


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