The reports of Mario Lemieux selling the Pittsburgh Penguins and pedaling his hockey talents on the open market have always been little more than a brushfire. For every one that burns out, there's another to soon take its place.
When these rumors first surfaced more than a year ago they were easy enough to laugh off. Between the depth of his investment in the franchise and his continued commitment to both the team and the city, it didn't take much more than a sixth grade education to figure out that Mario was going nowhere. That's why, invariably, the fires soon fizzled.
But recently the rumors started up again and the only difference seemed to be that, this time, the undergrowth was bone dry and the wind was up. But just because the rumor seemed to have found its legs the whole idea continues to be no less reprehensible. Not because it would involve Mario Lemieux jettisoning his franchise when it perhaps needs him more than ever (though that wouldn't be too pleasant), but because it's absolutely a case of the tail wagging the dog and at a certain point you have to wonder where it stops.
Mario Lemieux, maybe the best player the league has ever seen, has led the league for years, he's saved the Pittsburgh Penguins on more than one occasion, won Stanley Cups, won Olympic gold, beat cancer, and still he's being asked to dance like a circus chimp to sell papers and tout the game.
For years the Canadian press has alternately ripped and used Lemieux. He's too French or he's too American; he's too Pittsburgh or he's just not Canadian enough. And, of course, this is all his fault. Yet in reality, it's simply high time someone answer the question of exactly what it's going to take.
What's it going to take for Canada to accept that it's O.K. if perhaps the greatest player ever to lace 'em up never plays for a Canadian team? The Canada Cup obviously didn't do it. Neither did the Olympics, so what short of Mario Lemieux changing his name to 'Wayne Gretzky' and whoring himself out for every available dollar is going to compensate Canada for being cheated by, of all things, the NHL draft? A year in Montreal? Two? Three? Simply let us know so we can all be over it and get on with our lives.
Or is it not as simple as satisfying all those insecurities north of the border? Maybe Mario needs to roll over and bark for all of New York instead. Never mind that New York Rangers are living proof that farce isn't always funny. Forget that they are perhaps the most mismanaged team in the league and that they have as much chance of winning the Stanley Cup next year as the Penguins. Ignore the fact that they've been out of the playoffs longer than Pittsburgh has and that you'll find more chemistry at a community college than you will in their locker room. Simply know that the Rangers have conditioned their followers and reporters to have the patience of a two year-old. Therefore, Mario can save the Rangers because that's what he does. Sure, maybe he could even save them just like Gretzky did, or Lindrosyou know, only better.
But would that be enough? If Mario could turn that trainwreck into a hockey team, would everybody then be satisfied? If Mario could be put on ESPN every night surrounded by the likes of Pavel 'I'll play when I feel like it' Bure or Eric 'The Human Bobblehead' Lindros; if Mario could make the Rangers feel important again, would that be enough?
Or is it not about putting him on television every night in a Ranger sweater, but rather in any sweater? In other words, is the league not done with Mario yet?
The game is at perhaps its poorest state since Mario first retired to get away from the groping and tackling years ago, but if the NHL could get Mario, no matter what the cost, into a large market so they could exploit him just the way the NBA and Nike exploited an ever-so willing Michael Jordan, would that be enough? If the soap opera of Mario in New York, or Philadelphia, or Detroit could distract fans from the reality that these Stanley Cup Finals may, for very good reason, be the lowest rated in a decade and that a league-wide shutdown which could destroy the NHL is on the horizon, would that be enough?
Even in Pittsburgh, when will everybody finally be satisfied?
Mario Lemieux has brought more to the city of Pittsburgh than any single athlete in history. He's brought more than championships, he's saved a franchise from extinction, and he continues to fund the research that saves lives.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Mario Lemieux has been responsible for tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in and around Pittsburgh. Through his charity workwork which will dump another truck-load of money onto the city in just about a weekMario has become a fixture in Pittsburgh. Assuming he stays the course, there is a real possibility that his benevolence will someday put the name Lemieux on par with names like Mellon, Carnegie, and Heinz. Still there is that fear, despite not a single indication to the contrary, that Mario is just using Pittsburgh as a stepping stone to somewhere else. That yet another someone will leave Pittsburgh just as soon as Pittsburgh decides it's O.K. to love them.
Truth is, everybody has an agenda here and that includes Mario Lemieux himself. Certainly he has become more to the city of Pittsburgh than just a hockey player and leaving the team and the town, especially now, would undoubtedly tarnish his legacy.
Because Mario has transcended hockey in Pittsburgh, maybe that does mean he owes something more to the town. But, if he does owe something more to Pittsburgh than your average Joe, does he not also owe something more to the game, the fans, and his country? If he is so great that he owes more than the rest, does he not then owe more to all of us, not just a select few?
Perhaps he does, but after all he's done it's nothing more than arrogance for us to decide what Mario owes. Mario playing for Les Habitants won't make up for the ingrained inferiority complex so many Canadians obviously suffer from. Mario going to Broadway won't solve the myriad problems that have infected that impotent organization, nor would it help the league further avoid the fact that they've let the game slowly become next to unwatchable. But those are Mario's options to weigh and they are his decisions to make, not ours.
However, the one thing to keep in mind every time this circus comes to town isn't just what Mario wants or even what everybody wants from Mario. Instead it's that every one of these rumors are nothing more than a poorly thought-out, temporary solutions to a long-term problem.
The question that should rightly be asked here actually has very little to do with Mario Lemieux, even though everybody is trying to get a claw into him in one way or another.
The real question to everybody involved should simply be this. How badly do you need a quick fix? How much damage do you want to do to yourself, your team, or your future in pursuit of another form of denial.
At what point will you be satisfied with Mario? At what point will you be satisfied with yourself?
At what point will you realize how much is enough?
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season and his agenda involves Mario Lemieux remaining a Penguin and part of the fabric that makes Pittsburgh great. It's an agenda which also involves a platypus and a sultry Argentine tango, but that's best not discussed here.