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Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com

Spring Hopes Eternal

April 17, 2001

When the Greeks delineated the concept of hubris, the particular pride which comes just before the fall, it was a wonderful boon for humanity. It's a one-word reminder that pushing one's luck to the limit and fighting through adversity is the path to true greatness, yet, in the same breath, it warns that excess is folly and therefore disaster is only a conceit away.

Phrased another way, pride is a wonderful thing, right up until the point where it becomes arrogance.

Like many professional athletes, Mario Lemieux forged his career based upon a battle with and ultimately a triumph over adversity. However, these winning wars have been on an epic scale that they've rendered him a conquering hero, someone who can seemingly do no wrong. Which is another way to say, it is tough to imagine the moves of Mario Lemieux treading any closer to hubris than they are right now.

Arguably the greatest hockey player of all time, Mario Lemieux is, by all accounts, is a great man who has done just about as much for humanity (through his continued charitable largess, etc.) as he has for the game of hockey and the city of Pittsburgh. He saved the Penguins once as a player, saved them a second time as an owner, and now he seeks to complete the trifecta as not just owner and player, but as coach as well.

Make no mistake about it, Mario Lemieux is coaching the Penguins in these playoffs, and after the curious, circuitous job Ivan Hlinka did throughout the regular season, one almost wonders what took Mario so long to take over.

When Ivan Hlinka was finally hired late last June as head coach, the ruse was so transparent one half-hoped that General Manager Craig Patrick might actually open the press conference with the statement, "As you all know, the organization needed to find the one coach out there who could mollify the world's greatest player."

Never mind that Hlinka is credited with reviving the sport of hockey for an entire country or his qualifications to coach in the NHL, his mission in Pittsburgh would be simple. When given the reigns, he would focus the frenetic energies of Jaromir Jagr toward the net, because a happy Jagr is a productive Jagr, and because a productive Jagr was, at the time, the only foreseeable way the Penguins could reach the desperately needed moneys only the playoffs provide.

It was a great plan. Arriving under the nebulous term of "associate coach," Hlinka was even brought in four months early, specifically to prepare for the task at hand. Asked to play Al Gore, not Dick Cheney, his job was look capable, study the NHL playoffs (as if playoff competition were some kind of foreign concept), not offend anyone named Jaromir Jagr, and generally avoid any heavy lifting until given complete command. Unfortunately this plan didn't account for the many moods of Jaromir Jagr who decided Calgary was as good a place as any to demonstrate aloud something he learned at the knee of his mentor, Mario Lemieux, the belief that begins, 'coaching is fine for everybody, as long as 'everybody' doesn't include me.' Soon enough, the team began looking at a long, cold off-season until Mario, forever the savior, orchestrated The Return.

Suddenly, even surrounded by all the question marks, the playoffs couldn't arrive soon enough.

Secretly many, including perhaps Lemieux himself, had to hope that the playoffs would bring out the best in the coach who coaxed a gold medal out of the Czech Republic two years ago in Nagano. Yet opening night in Washington found the team confused, out of place, and dominated nearly from start to finish.

Down a game before anyone could blink, Mario did what he does best, he seized the team and put them onto his aching back once more. The message was clear, like all greats, it had to be done; as in the brazen words of would-be superstar Kobe Bryant, "I trust my teammates, I just trust myself more." Legends are made of exactly this, when the game is on the line, great players make the call because they are the ones willing to do so loud and clear. Thus, when the game was on the line, and when that game could have meant the series—and since that series would directly effect the future of the franchise—who else could it be up to?

Not coincidentally, the second playoff game was far different from the first. There were more grinders in the corners, actual ice time for a fourth line, and it was apparent that Ivan Hlinka's playoff tenure had lasted exactly one game.

It isn't difficult to understand why Mario did what he did. His team is literally 'his' team and less playoff revenue means talent slips away from Western Pennsylvania when restricted free agents such as Kovalev, Straka, Lang, Boughner and Kasparaitis get priced beyond Lemieux's limited budget.

Yet when Mario took over the team he had the good sense to know that spending the better part of three decades as a player didn't prepare him to run the day to day operations of a hockey franchise. That was why he left the team in the hands of Craig Patrick and kept his own hands in his pockets. Only now he is a player again, and now he's nearly the exact same player the world remembers, exhibiting almost every trait he did more than half a decade ago. So now, as the team drifts deeper into the playoffs, with their talent surging them ahead in the first round, and their dedication to team defense kindling the hope that there might just be some magic to this run; one tends to wonder. At what point is the world asking too much of Mario Lemieux, at what point is Mario asking too much of himself, and at what point does pride become hubris?

Brother Karsh currently writes for LetsGoPens.com and would entrust his first born to Mario as he believes Mario is more than just a mortal man. Although, Achilles and Prometheus were more than mortal men too, and, well . . .

Back to Karsh's Column List


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