Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com
Shadowboxing With God
August 27, 2001
It may seem surprising to say, or even difficult for some to comprehend, but Mario Lemieux is not God. Actually, according to the Greek, Roman, and Canadian mythology texts available today, Mario Lemieux is not even a god.
Owner, player, all-star, franchise savior, hockey icon, not a god. True story.
The mistake seems easy enough to make, after all, Mario is so many things (husband, father, cancer survivor, Stanley Cup champion, philanthropist, etc.) it would almost be more appropriate to state what he isn't as opposed to some twenty-six page laundry list of everything he is.
"Hi, my name is Mario, and I am not a god. Have a business card, 'Mario Lemieux. Pittsburgh Penguins. Not a God.'"
This, of course, shouldn't have to be said, yet lately there seems to be a movement afoot to do away with any disconnect between what Mario has done, and what Mario is doing. In essence, to let Mario's myriad accomplishments finally move him beyond all reproach.
Make no mistake, this is not a bout with the 'What Have You Done For Me Lately' syndrome making the rounds, that would imply the past whichas everyone knowsoverflows with elation and benevolence (along with that pesky pinch of aloof authoritarianism). On the contrary, this is entirely about is the present, because now the game has changed.
Today, Mario Lemieux is arguably the best player in the NHL, but he is also an NHL owner, in no discernable order. That he's trying to walk this line at all (especially when combined with his track record in Pittsburgh) gives him a great deal of latitude from the outset. It's tough to nit-pick the guy who kept the franchise in town and then stepped back on the ice midway through the season only to ring up 76 points after more than three years away from the game. However, is it right to give him a pass when he raises the bar himself?
When Mario and Jagr start trading barbs in the press before Jagr gets traded, should one question the actions of Jagr and not those of Lemieux? When Mario comes back to the game, stating repeatedly how he just wants to be 'one of the boys,' that's admirable, but when Mario then makes himself the highest paid player on the team, should that not give rise to a question or two in light of the obvious contradiction?
Is this digging mercilessly for a non-existent story, or simply questioning inconsistency? Consider the way Brett Hull was put in play.
Usually the golf course is reserved for the important things in life; drinking, swearing, and a generous bit of gambling liberally peppered over a few hours walk under a warm summer sun. Now that's America. But when you own a hockey team, even a couple of beers in the clubhouse can be spun into a month of rumor. This is something Mario the player never needed to worry much about, but it's something Mario the owner needs to be fully conscious of precisely because of the questions that follow.
Who has the final say in the office, on the ice? Who sets the roster, the budget, the coaching staff?
If Mario wants to have the best of both worlds, doesn't he then have to play by both sets of rules? Is he not making the quest twice as hard, and therefore the triumph twice as sweet?
Mario Lemieux is attempting something unprecedented in sports, winning a championship as both player and owner simultaneously. But should that mean both player and owner are to be handled with kid gloves?
Is that the end result of Mario's singular position in hockey history, or is it the coward's way out?
To be fair, certain questions have been asked, but most have been little more than fodder for the spin cycle. For example, assume that the cynics were right, that Mario ended his retirement solely for the money. The only collateral damage from that would be an increase in franchise value and the Penguins' youth getting their tutelage from Mario Lemieux first-hand. Additionally, if Mario is taking too much in salary this year (hardly), it will be the guys at the end of the bench reaping the windfall of an eventual increase in the league minimum, as well as the fan who gets to see Mario on the ice once again. Meanwhile, if Mario's not taking enough money for the season (probably) it's the team that nets the ability to spend the surplus on more talent for a Cup run, and it's the league that now has one less owner throwing money out the window for no apparent reason.
As a commodity, Mario Lemieux adds up to a golden goose no one wants to strangle. He's great for the game, the team, and the city. But at the bottom of it all is just Mario the person. Someone who, despite the athlete stereotype, is easily smart enough to learn from his mistakes provided he is surrounded by more than sycophants and opportunists who are afraid to tell him the truth.
All that he's given the Penguins, and all that he continues to give the team and the city have been (and will continue to be) well-appreciated, but Mario Lemieux has put himself in his current position. Thus, while he's certainly earned the benefit of the doubt in most every case, just because he's the closest thing Pittsburgh has to a sports deity doesn't mean that his actions should be beyond question. If anything, Mario has earned the respect that only comes from the most honest critique, and it could be said that those who wish to give him anything less are disrespecting not only the team, but Mario himself.
Brother Karsh is a loving, kind, generous, (read: underpaid) columnist who appears weekly at LGP.com during the season and appreciates every free thing Mario Lemieux has ever given him. But Brother Karsh also believes that until he is forever beyond reproach (tentative completion date: February, 2003) no one else should be either.
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