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Pittsburgh Penguins Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux (66), front and centre, poses for a group photo after an exhibition NHL hockey game between Penguins and Washington Capitals alumni on an outdoor rink at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Friday, Dec. 31, 2010. (Gene J. Puskar/Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Pittsburgh Penguins Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux (66), front and centre, poses for a group photo after an exhibition NHL hockey game between Penguins and Washington Capitals alumni on an outdoor rink at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Friday, Dec. 31, 2010. (Gene J. Puskar/Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Mario Lemieux delights Penguins fans one more time Add to ...

He hasn't lost a step.

There are not many players you can say that about at age 45 and five years removed from his skates, but the truth is Mario Lemieux never had much of a step to begin with.

Never needed it - not when you could fire the puck over the net from centre ice at age eight, not when peewee goaltenders used to weep at the mere prospect of facing you, not when you score on your very first shift in the National Hockey League.

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There was not much to cheer about at the Winter Classic Alumni Game. Once the introductions are done with, interest in oldtimers playing shinny drops quick as the puck at the opening faceoff.

In Pittsburgh, however, they came out 10 thousand strong in the early morning to cheer the player who saved the franchise so many times he now owns it. They cheered as, toque replacing helmet, Lemieux made his way out from the football stadium locker room to the outdoor rink where Saturday's much-hyped "Classic" game will be played between his Pittsburgh Penguins, featuring Sidney Crosby, and the Washington Capitals with Alexander Ovechkin.

They cheered when hockey's former superstar won the opening faceoff and cheered again when, predictably, he floated into the opponents' end, sailing more than skating, and promptly set up the first goal of the game.

"Some things never change," chuckled his longtime friend and once teammate Paul Coffey.

They would have cheered even louder had the NHL shown the common sense to send the dreary alumni game to a shootout when it ended 5-5 - a move that would have allowed Lemieux the chance at one more hockey heroic, even if rather meaningless compared to all the others.

It has been a long journey for the one they called "The Magnificent One." I met him first in 1985 at the World Championships in Prague, where his play as a teenager was the talk of the tournament. He was shy, reluctant, and spoke no English.

His personality transformation over the years has been almost as remarkable as his playing accomplishments on the ice. He once refused to play for the Canadian juniors because he did not like the coach. He refused to shake the hand or don the jersey of the NHL team, the Penguins, that drafted him. He learned English but rarely bothered talking, preferring to duck out dressing room back doors to facing the press.

His on ice brilliance was undeniable. From that goal on the first shift - stealing the puck from the great Raymond Bourque, no less - he chased Wayne Gretzky through a decade of NHL records that still stand. He won every trophy available. He scored that most brilliant goal during the 1987 Canada Cup. He purposely let that puck slip through his legs to Paul Kariya during the 2002 Winter Games as he captained Canada to Olympic gold. He battled remarkable health issues - back operations, cancer - retired from the game, was named to the Hall of Fame, and came back not only to play again but to star.

He changed his personality, however, when he had to sell the game, not merely play it. When bankruptcy threatened to destroy this franchise and take the millions of deferred salary he was owed with it, he somewhat reluctantly became an owner and today, with a brand-new rink for his team, seems at ease in his new life.

Lemieux sat on a stool after the shinny match, microphone in hand and talked about whatever subject was raised.

He was asked about the weather - hours later the NHL would announce that the game would be moved back to 8 p.m. Saturday due to rain warning -- and said, with some regret, that the cold, clear weather was headed out of town. If the game cannot be held Saturday, they will try Sunday. After that, it could be rescheduled for indoors.

"It would be a shame not to have a game," Lemieux said.

He was asked about Crosby, the youngster Lemieux took into his own home and who is now on his own, captain of the 2009 Stanley Cup champion Penguins and leading scorer in the NHL this season.

"Incredible," Lemieux said. As for the 25-game scoring streak Crosby recently put up, incredible doesn't even begin to measure it.

"It's not the same as it was 20 years ago," Lemieux said in considering his own remarkable 46-game streak of 1989-90. "What he's doing now is much more impressive than anything I did.

"It's tougher to dominate the way the league is today."

He then talked about how the rivalry he had with Gretzky might compare to all the current talk concerning Crosby and Ovechkin.

Hard to say for sure, he mused, as the game has changed so dramatically, particularly in terms of overall speed and in the skating ability of today's defence.

Gretzky, he said, liked to hold the puck and had a signature play of curling back with it to buy a little extra time.

"You can't do that anymore," he said.

He said nothing of his own style. He didn't need to. As former teammate Luc Robitaille once put it, "A fire hydrant could score 40 goals with him."

Ovechkin, Lemieux said, has an extraordinary physical presence and, of course, that "shot." Crosby, on the other hand, is "more controlling" out there, seeking out pucks and using incredible speed and strength to create opportunities in a game that, today, seems all about speed.

"Two different styles," he said, "two different eras."

But still the same game - and always better for a top-notch rivalry.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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