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IT'S LEMIEUX'S TIME TO SHINE IN SPOTLIGHT

Mario Lemieux strolled into the media center in Pepsi Center a half hour before the North American team was ordered to meet the press Saturday morning. It was a full hour before he was scheduled for his own, individual news conference.

He was the second player through the door. Ahead was talkative winger Theoren Fleury, small enough to get lost in a seventh-grade sock hop. For a few moments, Super Mario, all 6-foot-4, somehow blended with the masses before the camera lights flickered in his direction and a crowd quickly formed around him.

And Lemieux stood there, smiling.

It was not a phony grin flashed toward cameras for self-serving purposes, which is common among athletes nowadays. Mario Lemieux, the same man once known for hiding from the press, known for fleeing attention, was genuinely having a good time during All-Star weekend.

He changed during his 3 1/2 -year retirement. He appreciates the game more than he did when he started dominating in the mid-1980s. He learned after rescuing the Pittsburgh Penguins from bankruptcy and assuming ownership that he possessed skills as a setup man, a scorer and a salesman. He enjoys the business side more now that he has stake in the league. And he appreciates the people.

Super Mario is the spokesman now for a league hurting for one since Wayne Gretzky left his skates in his locker in 1998. Lemieux is the league's marquee player, an owner, a teammate, a fan. He has all sides covered now, which is why was at ease Saturday afternoon while getting peppered with questions ranging from his comeback after cancer, of which he has been free for seven years, to the sale of the Montreal Canadiens, to his place in the game.

"I think I learned a lot, especially the last two years since I took over the team as owner, to take a step back and see how the media and the fans react to the game," Lemieux said. "I certainly understand my part now. It's important for me to go out and try to promote the game, to give my time to the media and also to the fans. I always want to know more about the star players. At this stage of my career, I am willing to do that. I feel more comfortable doing it. I understand why we are doing it."

Remember, Lemieux left the game with barely a whisper. While fans easily recall Gretzky's last hurrah, they have a foggy recollection about Lemieux's departure. His last game before retirement came April 26, 1997, against Philadelphia in the CoreStates Center. A few days before, he was waving to the fans in Civic Arena. But nobody knew he was waving goodbye.

Now, he understands.

He understood enough Saturday, while he had the hockey world's attention, to announce he wants to play next season and probably beyond. He announced he wants to play for Team Canada in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He ended speculation about his future, realizing it was easier to tell the masses rather than avoid them.

At one point, someone asked him about his contract, whether he had signed himself for next season. "We're negotiating right now," he cracked. He's making $1.4 million, the average salary, but he would be a bargain at $14 million.

This was Lemieux selling himself, selling the game, selling the Penguins. Of course, there was no better sales pitch than coming out of retirement. Each of the 16 games he has played this season has sold out. Bank on 16 more. He's expected to receive a standing ovation today when he's introduced before the 51st NHL All-Star Game (2:30 p.m., Ch. 5 & 7, 107.7).

"I think you appreciate it more when you are out of the game for a long period of time," he said. "You have a second chance to come to these events and play with the best players in the world. You appreciate it a lot more than when it's a given every year. So this one is very, very special."

It would have been enough to simply come back, but it wouldn't have been enough for him. He's a star player, and the one thing true stars have in common is that they are unwilling to become anything less. Lemieux has 16 goals and 32 points. His goal total accounts for more than any player on the Buffalo Sabres or Minnesota Wild. His point total would rank him among the top five on all but seven teams. He already has a hat trick. It's difficult to imagine, but he might actually be better now than he was earlier in his Hall of Fame career.

"Only he could do that, to come back after 3 1/2 years and do what he's doing," Avalanche center Joe Sakic said. "That's why he's the best player in the world. He's really the leader of this league. To have him take over like that is great for the game. There's more excitement in every city now that Mario's back."

Lemieux is back only after the league complied. He left as a scoring champion, frustrated with an establishment that subjected its star players to frequent maulings. The style limited his skill, killed his spirits. The NHL since made an effort to clean up the game. Last season at this point, there were 16 injuries resulting from slashing. This year, there have been three. Credit Lemieux.

Super Mario won't win the scoring title this season, and he probably won't win his third Stanley Cup. But he is the game's most valuable player, for he has resuscitated hockey. He's the NHL's biggest ambassador for the first time in his career. He was smiling Saturday. Those who saw him knew it was genuine.

"I feel comfortable doing it, and it has been great the first 16 games that I've been back," he said. "It has been very exciting to play the game when it has a lot of media attention and fans and everybody is excited about the game. It's been a lot of fun so far."

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