A for Athlete

Hey Mario, why haven't we heard from you?[]

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com, May 27, 2008

PITTSBURGH -- On Sunday night, the NHL gathered members of the Detroit Red Wings dynasty of the 1950s. Alex Delvecchio, Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Marty Pavelich and Marcel Pronovost regaled a crowd, including the top prospects in this summer's NHL draft, with terrific stories from their glory days.

The event provided a lovely bridge between the young stars populating the current Pittsburgh Penguins-Detroit Red Wings series and the game's rich past.

Mario Lemieux's only official Cup finals appearance was dropping the ceremonial puck with Steve Yzerman, right, before Saturday's Game 1.

The NHL did the same thing last year with a wildly successful night involving former Montreal Canadiens greats.

And why not? This is the Stanley Cup finals, the great showcase for the sport on the game's grandest stage. The NHL has worked hard to fill the finals with all kinds of opportunities to tell the game's stories and increase the league's profile. There are opportunities to talk to the top draft picks and some of the NHL's award winners from the regular season. The GMs will meet in Detroit next week if the finals go beyond four games. Commissioner Gary Bettman always provides his state of the league address before Game 1 of the finals.

Yet there is one hockey great who will remain strangely, inexplicably mute through these Stanley Cup finals -- Mario Lemieux.

The Hall of Fame captain of the Pittsburgh teams that won Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, and who later revived a franchise that seemed destined to wither on the vine in Pittsburgh, maintains his self-imposed media blackout even though his team is in the finals for the first time in 16 years.

When requests are made to talk to Lemieux, either in a one-on-one setting or in a group format with reporters covering the finals, word politely comes back through the team that the man who is the Penguins' part-owner doesn't want to take the spotlight away from his young team.

What a load of hooey.

This has nothing to do with taking any spotlight away from his players. They have been playing in the spotlight for weeks now. And since Sidney Crosby became a Penguin three seasons ago, the spotlight has never been far from this Penguins team.

No, this is more about Lemieux's detachment from the game or, at least, detachment from having to share his thoughts and feelings about the game.

Wouldn't it be interesting, as these finals goes on, to hear what Lemieux has to say about the rise of a team that looked to be on the way out of town less than two years ago? What does he recall from his first trip to the Stanley Cup finals? What has he said to tenant Crosby about playing in the event?

We're not talking earth-shattering stuff here, but it is a natural sidebar to the main proceedings here. And what are we talking about, 20 minutes out of Lemieux's wildly busy schedule? Surely he could make room in one afternoon to talk about the game he made such a handsome living from, and still does to this day.

Lemieux's sole contribution to the finals has been appearing with former Detroit captain Steve Yzerman to drop the ceremonial first puck before Game 1. Lemieux presumably was able to squeeze that into his schedule, and it didn't deter him from hustling back to his private box to watch Detroit's 4-0 win.

It is both convenient and predictable for Lemieux to hide in the background at a time when the game most needs its relevant stars in place, because it's always been about convenience for Lemieux.

It's curious how suddenly available and accessible Lemieux was when he took an ownership stake in the team because he was owed millions of dollars in the late 1990s. The more attention focused on the Penguins meant more ticket sales and a better chance at either a new arena deal or a deal to sell the team.

Then, when Lemieux decided he was going to play for Canada at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and was named captain of the squad, he couldn't have been more gracious; but, after that was over, when he didn't need the attention, not so much.

Later, when talks to build a new arena in Pittsburgh broke down and Lemieux was at war with local politicians and officials over funding for the project, he was once again available to discuss the issue. He was prepared to sell the team to whoever walked in the door. A couple of suitors, including Jim Balsillie and William "Boots" Del Biaggio, would undoubtedly have tried to move the team as quickly as possible to Southern Ontario or Kansas City, but that fact seems lost in the renaissance of the team.

Not that anyone could blame Lemieux for trying to get the most out this team financially. He's done his time and served the team and the city well.

But let's not paint this with any other brush than what it deserves. The only reason Lemieux isn't making himself available during these finals is because there's nothing in it for him.

And that's more than a little sad.