STATELINE, Nev. — Somebody neglected to teach Mario Lemieux the celebrity code. Arguably the second greatest hockey player of all time — ceding only to Wayne Gretzky — and still Lemieux waits in the line for the gourmet buffet like the rest of the regular well-healed folks.
Not Lemieux. He actually waits with the average golfers who've paid big money to get to mingle with real celebrities like him. Almost every celebrity golf tournament has a meet-and-greet dinner like this. You just never see the truly big stars at them.
Of course, somebody probably needs to tell Lemieux that he is a major sports star before he can consider partaking in the traditional blowoff.
This is the most soft-spoken sports legend you'll ever meet. Talk to Lemieux and you almost have to strain and lean in to hear him. The man who scored 690 career NHL goals, won three league MVPs, two Stanley Cups and saved hockey in Pittsburgh — all while battling back injuries, Hodgkin's disease and a rules system that rewarded clutching and grabbing — doesn't appear overly impressed with himself.
Super Mario mostly seems like he sees himself as just another golfer trying to get a grip on his maddeningly addictive game.
Golf isn't something he just picked up post retirement to fill the idle hours of a Hall of Famer. Lemieux started playing in 1984 during his rookie season in Pittsburgh. Several of his teammates were members at Rolling Hills Country Club and the phenom who wore 66 as he tore down the ice soon started dreaming of shooting 66.
"Mario can play," said John Elway, another Hall of Fame icon turned excellent golfer. "I don't think people realize just what a special athlete this guy is. Look at what he's come back from."
Elway has a point. Lance Armstrong's fight back from cancer turned into an inspirational cottage industry, complete with books and bracelets. Armstrong only needed to gear himself up for one major race a year in his comeback though. Lemieux shrugged off cancer to get through the near-endless grind of an NHL regular season and the playoffs.
He won the NHL scoring title in his return season despite playing only 60 games. He put up 69 goals and 91 assists in those 60 games.
Not that Lemieux wants to talk about it. He's just another golfer, waiting for his grub.
Q: How competitive do you get out on the golf course?
Mario Lemieux: Certainly when you're in a tournament, you get competitive. It's just good competition amongst the players, the ex-athletes and you've got to make a lot of birdies.
Q: Can you relate the pressure situations you face in golf to what you experienced at the highest levels of hockey?
Mario Lemieux: Well, it's much easier in hockey. Golf is something we're not used to dealing with. It's not what we do for a living. So you get a lot more nervous in golf.
Q: Why are so many hockey players good golfers? What transfers over in the two very different sports?
Mario Lemieux: I don't know. The golf swing is somewhat similar to the hockey swing. And hockey takes good hand-eye coordination.
Q: Do you get as into the golf as you did hockey? Is the intensity at all similar?
Mario Lemieux: Well, this is a lot harder for us. This isn't something you do for a living. But you still enjoy it.
Q: So playing golf against a bunch of other middle-aged guys is tougher than winning the Stanley Cup?
Mario Lemieux: For me, no question. Golf's hard.
Q: What do you think of the new post-lockout NHL and its rules? Many of them seem to have been designed to protect stars like you.
Mario Lemieux: I think the NHL is better with the crackdown on fighting and letting some more of the skill come out.
Q: Do you think you would have played longer if they had these rules during your career?
Mario Lemieux: I don't know. That's hard to say. I might have been a little less beat up.
Q: You've won some major celebrity golf tournaments. Does that provide extra confidence out on the course?
Mario Lemieux: You kind of think about it. Some putts you've made in the past and how you've finished. It crossed my mind a little on the back nine. But I couldn't pull any magic out.
Q: Who's the best celebrity golfer you've competed against?
March 15, 2007