Saying goodbye to hockey legends, & hello to a new age

sideline commentary

Lemieux’s stick sweeps away the damp fallen leaves searching for a tennis ball wedged beside the curb. The fading daylight counts down the clock, the ball bounces free and 66 breaks towards the goal.

It’s game seven—overtime. The Cup is on the line. A swift toe drag around the man-hole, one nifty deke through the paws of a defending golden retriever, and Lemieux glides in on the last man standing. The street is silent in anticipation as the Magnificent One flips the rolling ball to his backhand, and then quickly slides it to his forehand. The plywood cut-out maintains its angles and is undaunted by the move. Lemieux fires a bullet top shelf. It rips through the tattered mesh just as the street light flickers on—just in time. Game over. A couple of victory laps with Lord Stanley and the hero heads in for dinner.

It’s a scene which—in varying degrees—has been replayed over and over again by adolescent hockey fans for the past 20 years. The spirit of hockey legends inspired us to believe in our dreams as we—for those fleeting moments—shared in their immortality on the streets and in the rinks of our hometowns.

However, wooden sticks wear down, tennis balls vanish, goalposts rust, and legends inevitably retire. A new generation replaces the old, but the dreams remain the same. Although it may seem odd to recognize that the legends we grew up idolizing are fading into hockey history, the recent retirement of Mario Lemieux illustrates this reality.

On Jan. 24 Lemieux officially announced that he was hanging up his skates due to his ongoing struggle with atrial fibrillation, a dangerous heart condition. In doing so, the 40-year-old Pittsburgh Penguin essentially announced a changing of the guard in the NHL.

“This is really a new NHL and it’s built on speed and young guys,” he said during the announcement. “I think it’s great to see. We’re seeing a lot of young guys now coming in and really being some of the best in the league.”

With rookie sensation Sidney Crosby now leading the Penguins, it is apparent through Lemieux’s departure that a new generation of NHL superstars is beginning to emerge.

In the aftermath of the NHL lockout, the league attempted to repackage itself into a product that would capture the attention of a new generation of fans. This was the new, young NHL. Many of the greats that we grew up with began to realize it was time to fade away. Quietly, legendary players like Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Kirk Muller, and Doug Gilmour all slipped into retirement during the lockout without receiving the accolades they deserved. Brett Hull attempted to adapt to the new NHL but was unable to make the transition and retired in early October.

Although many veteran greats still remain in the NHL, it is inevitable that within the next five years the transition from old to new will be complete.

That is why Mario Lemieux’s retirement is so significant. It’s about what he represents—the end of an old era, and the emergence of a new.

His career has been an inspiring story of tragedy, resilience, courage, and victory. From the moment he scored during his first NHL game, on the first shot of his very first shift, hockey fans knew he was going to be special. That season he scored 43 goals and added 57 assists, en route to becoming only the third rookie in NHL history to score 100 points or more and winning the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year.

The Magnificent One went on to put up numbers comparable only to Wayne Gretzky. He finished his career having won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer six times and the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player three times. Lemieux was named to nine All-Star teams and was twice awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.

However, Lemieux was not simply incredible because of his ability on the ice. In the 1989-90 season he began to suffer from severe back problems, and was forced to miss most of the 1990-91 campaign because of the pain. But Lemieux bravely overcame the injury and returned to lead the Penguins to the Stanley Cup that season, and then helped them repeat as champions in the 1991-92 season.

Lemieux’s will was tested further the following year when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. The cancer was treated with radiation during the 1992-93 season, and he was forced to miss an entire month with his team—only to return and lead the league once more.

Lemieux’s battle with cancer continued into the next year, and he was forced to miss all of 1994-95. And yet, miraculously, he returned a year later. That season, he was in so much pain that he hardly practiced at all. In games, when he went to hop over the boards for a shift, he would grab his pants and lift his leg, grimacing all the while. Still, he led the NHL in scoring and was named the league MVP.

In 1997 Lemieux retired from hockey, but to the joy of hockey fans worldwide, he decided to return to the Pittsburgh Penguins as part owner and player for the team in 2000.

Lemieux’s amazing journey became an inspiration to sports fans everywhere. He has been set apart from the rest because of his unfathomable talent despite the obstacles he has had to overcome.

He now sits seventh on the all-time points list with 1,723—690 goals and 1,033 assists. However, due to his chronic back troubles and battle with cancer, Lemieux only played in 915 games during his career. That puts him well out of the top 50 for most games played. When you put Lemieux’s statistics into perspective, it is easy to see why many argue that he may have been the greatest to ever play the game. Unfortunately we’ll never know.

This evening, like any night of the week, adolescent epigones of a new generation of hockey heroes will take to the streets to experience the glory of the likes of Crosby, Kovalchuck, Staal and Ovechkin. And just as long-retired greats Orr and Howe seemed to us, the heroes of our generation will one day become the legendary echoes of yesterday. The tradition will continue even though the names will change, and our beloved game will thrive as it always has.

However, for those of us who have watched the glory days of our childhood heroes fade to history, it’s nice to believe that somewhere on a cold, quiet street, a young, dreaming 66 is still slipping past manholes and going shelf on the plywood before the street lights turn on and the dusk blends into the dark of night.

Dan Robson remembers ball hockey in the fading daylight, but he was a better goalie than the plywood cut-out.

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