Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

What Might Have Been for Lemieux Injuries Kept Star's Numbers in Check

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

What Might Have Been for Lemieux Injuries Kept Star's Numbers in Check

Article excerpt

What would have happened if . . .

. . . Jim Brown hadn't walked away from football at age 29 to begin a movie career?

. . . Mickey Mantle never tripped over that outfield sprinkler head shortly after arriving in the majors, summoning the start of painful, never-ending knee and leg injuries? . . . Pelle Lindbergh hadn't smashed his sports car into a wall, snuffing out the life of one of the NHL's most promising young goalies? Followers of Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins must have asked themselves similar questions. "How good could he have been if . . . he didn't have to spend half his career doubled over with crippling back problems?" "How many more Stanley Cups and personal accolades could he have collected if . . . he never was stricken with cancer?" "Could he have caught Wayne Gretzky for all the NHL scoring titles if . . . he could just catch an even break?" Before he recently was fired as the Penguins' head coach, Eddie Johnston was asked how much more he felt Lemieux could have done if there had been no detours and roadblocks on his path to the Hall of Fame. "He might have had 900 goals," Johnston said. "The last seven, eight years, he hasn't been able to play all the time. My first year back here, he couldn't tie his skates. He missed time with the Hodgkin's, he took a whole year off. There's no telling how many goals he could have scored." Lemieux, who has announced this will be his last National Hockey League season at age 31, already has scored 44 goals in 1996-97, only two fewer than league-leader John Leclair, his Pittsburgh teammate. He has 607 career goals entering Thursday night's game against Toronto, and if he can register his 40th career hat trick, he will tie Bobby Hull for sixth place on the NHL's all-time scoring list. There are all kinds of "ifs" linked to the 6-foot-4 star center from Montreal, the NHL's five-time scoring leader and three-time most valuable player. Except when it comes down to his decision about retirement. There were whispers he was thinking about changing his mind. One more year. Just one. But most of that smoke was being blown by good friend Ron Francis, his right wing on hockey's No. 1 line. Francis used to pester Lemieux about it every day until it got to be a running joke in the Pittsburgh dressing room. "He'll come back," Francis said. "He just doesn't know it yet." Last month, however, Lemieux finally tucked all the speculation to bed. This will be it, he promised. Even if he wins a third Stanley Cup this season, he will not be back. "After this, the next time you see me play will be in one of those old-timers games," he said, smiling. Some believe Lemieux may not even put his skates back on for that. A very private and family-oriented person, many people who know him well suspect when Lemieux rides off into the sunset, he will never look back nor be seen again. …

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