WORCESTER - For a couple of years, while Claude Lemieux was between shifts, he spent his working days as president of the ECHL's Phoenix Roadrunners. Lemieux, one of Hockey's edgier and more irascible forwards in his NHL playing days, found sitting in an office to be tough - and the losing even tougher.
"At one point in Phoenix, we lost something like 11 in a row," Lemieux recalled yesterday, taking a short break from his career renaissance inside the DCU Center. "I learned to get a taste of losing, and it's no fun."
These days, the 43-year-old Lemieux is attempting to satisfy a different appetite, one far more familiar and pleasing to his palate. More than five years after taking his most recent NHL shift, he is
Bruins block out opposition. C5.
playing for the AHL's Worcester Sharks, which he hopes will be his last bit of prep work before returning to the NHL. He has been to China for a two-week tuneup with the China Sharks (San Jose's affiliate in the Asian Hockey League), and he has been to Providence (part of a three-games-in-three-nights test that is de rigueur in the AHL).
The results thus far, according to the old man who once wore Montreal's "CH" on his chest, have been positive, encouraging, to the point he believes he can get back to the show within a matter of weeks.
"I'm having a great time," said Lemieux, once the focal point of Boston fans' ire, in part the result of some legendary confrontations with Cam Neely at the old Garden. "I think I can be very helpful to any club, based on what I bring to the ice and to the dressing room. That said, I've waited a long time to do this, so I'm also looking for a good fit."
That fit could be with San Jose, but it also could be with anyone else in the Original 30. Of course, at his age, it could also be with no one.
Sharks general manager Doug Wilson, only eight years Lemieux's senior, offered him the opportunity to try again, with the encouragement of Jeremy Roenick.
Lemieux, who will be on the ice here tonight when the Sharks face off against Wilkes-Barre (Pittsburgh's top affiliate), has a goal and two assists in his three AHL games.
If San Jose wants to sign him beyond his current deal, he's here for the taking. If not, he's here for anyone else who remembers his 379 goals, his 785 points, and those 1,756 career penalty minutes.
Suffice to say the Red Wings, who still smart from his ugly hit on Kris Draper years ago, likely won't dispatch a scout to check out No. 32 in Worcester teal.
"Yeah, he's 43, but I think that's all a state of mind," said Worcester coach Roy Sommer. "If you look at him, he's got the body of a 27- or 28-year-old, and in the brief time he's been with us, he's helped us win [2-1-0 over the weekend].
"I think the question will be, is his mind into it? So far, it sure seems that way."
To this point, noted Sommer, the reacclimation has been seamless.
Lemieux is skating right wing on a line with ex-Harvard winger Tom Cavanagh and center Cory Larose. Save for a few flecks of gray in his dark hair, Lemieux appears to be the same physically fit, wide-shouldered, muscular chunk of Quebecois mountainside who carved a successful niche in the NHL over the course of some 18 years, four Stanley Cups, and one Conn Smythe Trophy.
"It's been fun playing with him," said Cavanagh, 25, who was still in high school when Lemieux won the Cup for a fourth time, with the New Jersey Devils in 2000.
"He's in great shape and he moves around fine out there. He's been there and done it all, one of those guys you soak stuff up from."
All in all, not bad for a man who might be leafing through AARP magazine when his teammates are tuning up Coldplay on their iPods.
"I know, weird," said Cavanagh. "He's 43."
In a league acutely skewed toward youth and speed, Lemieux at first glance is the anti-New NHL. He was never the fastest skater, even in his prime. Born and raised outside Montreal, and a Canadien upon entering the league, he made his living being dogged, brazen, and a bit brash, not so much a thug as a belligerent and agitating nuisance.
"You know," said admiring fellow Shark Kyle McLaren, the former Bruins back liner, "he was kind of Sean Avery before Sean Avery was invented. But when you play with him, he's all about winning and being a great teammate. Everything he does is to win, and, yeah, he pushes it, but not to that extra dimension. It's always with respect for the game."
Lemieux so irked Neely one night at the Garden that the big Bruins winger dragged him into a corner (Lemieux tucked into a ball on all fours) and bashed Lemieux face-first a few times into the unforgiving sideboards, directly into the Boston Globe billboard. A new twist to home delivery.
"Cam didn't like me shadowing him," recalled Lemieux, his icy blue eyes almost Malamute-like. "I don't blame him, either.
"The difference between Cam and I is, he held grudges on and off the ice. For me, always, when the game is over, it's over. I had the highest respect for the way he played."
Such feelings were never reciprocated on Neely's part.
"Yeah, I drove him a little crazy at times," said Lemieux, born some five weeks after Neely in 1965, the two of them drafted only 17 picks apart in 1983. "On the flip side, I would have liked it if he had been the one shadowing me, but ..."
Lemieux likely would not be here now if not for how things finished up for him in Dallas in September 2003 training camp. Healthy throughout most of his career, he had neck and groin injuries with the Stars in 2002-03 but hoped to play his way into shape the following season.
"But they decided to go in a different direction with salary structure, getting ready for the lockout," recalled Lemieux. "Dallas just gave up on me."
He eventually went to Switzerland, spent some six months playing for Zug in 2003-04, and like everyone else the following season, was a man without an NHL team during the 2004-05 lockout.
"I just figured it was time to move on," said Lemieux, reflecting on his choice then to move into different ventures, including real estate development in the Phoenix area. "And one of the biggest things still in my head, and why I am trying to come back now, is that after playing all those years, I didn't have a say in when my last game would be.
"OK, on the flip side, you got to win [the Cup] four times, and you had a lot of success, but then you're faced with giving up something you loved to do for so long. I didn't have a say in that.
"Closure is important, and I never got to do that. I really regretted it, and as time went on, not being on the ice, I really resented it."
Now he's here, with his AHL teammates, waiting for the phone call, that chance for his big break, the one that would commence the closing.
"What's this about?" mused Lemieux, relaxing in the Sharks dressing room early yesterday afternoon, the satisfaction of a hard skate settling into his aged bones. "It's just about Hockey , really. Just Hockey ."
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org