Message Board
Minor Leagues

Friday, December 8
Updated: December 9, 4:53 AM ET
Lemieux should return as player only

By Terry Frei
Special to


Hold on here.


In the rush to endorse Mario Lemieux's planned emergence from retirement as the biggest boost for the NHL since Wayne Gretzky's move to the NHL with the Oilers, aren't we missing something?

The complications and conflict-of-interest perils involving an owner playing in the league are myriad, troubling and potentially threatening to Lemieux's legacy.

If he wants to play again, he should have to find a buyer -- or buyers -- and sell his ownership interest in the Penguins.

Nothing short of full divestiture would be acceptable, and that's what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman should say is the goal Monday when he briefs the board of governors about Lemieux's return to the ice.

It isn't enough he apparently would cease serving as the Penguins' governor in league matters. It wouldn't be enough for him to put his Penguins' holdings in a blind trust. It wouldn't be acceptable for him to engage in a disingenuous deke, such as (temporarily) transferring his stake in the Penguins to a family member or to Bud Selig's daughter.

He should have to choose. Does he want to be a player or an owner?

No, there apparently is no NHL rule that covers this, that can be cited as the justification for a "sell" mandate to Lemieux.

This is a matter of common sense, of what's best for the game, of avoiding a potential mess. Cut through everything else, and you come to this: Mario Lemieux is planning to come back to the NHL as a player because he loves the game. He loves it so much, he can't get it out of his system, and he knows, at 35, he could be the best damn player in the business if his recalcitrant body holds up. There is unfinished business, and it isn't in a computer program involving the Penguins' budget in the team's offices.

Fine. Terrific. Wonderful. If he loves it that much, cashing out shouldn't be a problem. He was central in the maneuvering that kept the team for Pittsburgh, and he ended up in the owner's box both because he was willing to put up some of his own money, but also because he was owed so much money as a creditor when the team was bankrupt. That's all praiseworthy, and his savvy and energy in the front office has been impressive as well. But before he pulls on the uniform again, he should have to be transformed back into an employee -- not an owner-player.

Don't mistake this as some sort of anti-Lemieux, anti-comeback rant. If Lemieux indeed can come back and perform at anything close to the exceptional standard he set in his prime, it will be invigorating for the league, the sport and even the professional sports scene in general. The icons shine bright, and their ineffable powers to transcend their sports are undeniable. Lemieux has that capability, and that doesn't even take into account the breathtaking skills, the aura of leadership and class he brings when he is in uniform.

So if Lemieux is convinced he again is physically capable of playing in the NHL after his 44-month layoff, more power to him. At 35, he isn't ancient by sporting standards, and he even is four years younger than Colorado's Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey . . .

Uh, strike that last example.

Chances are, he won't look like Guy Lafleur at the end; or even Willie Mays or Joe Louis. He is not Gordie Howe, worrying about playing with his sons or, sadly, taking a shift with a minor-league team as a calendar-induced gimmick.

That's not the problem.

How'd you like to coach a team with the owner playing center? Where does that leave coach Ivan Hlinka, or his successors? Does the coach call his center, ""Mr. Lemieux?"

Won't the players around him know that Lemieux's financial stake at least gives him theoretical say in the allocation of payroll money and many other decisions?

If Lemieux takes the minimum salary, that will be a blow to the players' association, which is dependent on average and benchmark salaries in so many interpretations of the collective bargaining agreement. Even the referees will know Lemieux has an ownership stake, and indirectly contributes to their salaries. This is a league with a vague rulebook, subjective interpretations and a tendency to look for a second shooter on the grassy knoll after every call. And with an owner on the ice, the conspiracy theories and whining will be unavoidable -- even if they have no merit.

Would league discipline czar Colin Campbell have the nerve to suspend Lemieux if he loses his head and slashes someone?

Or, as is more likely, won't any decision about supplemental discipline involving a hit on Lemieux be suspect?

Lemieux's dual role as owner and player would put too many of those around him in untenable, uncomfortable, no-win situations. If he loves the game enough, he won't put the game in those positions. We live in an era in which noble intentions aren't enough to wave off troubling conflict of interest questions. Appearance is as important as reality. Avoiding conflict of interest questions is, unfortunately, almost as important as avoiding conflicts of interest.

Even if everyone involved successfully blocks out the fact Lemieux is an NHL owner when he's on the ice -- which is impossible, but let's just pretend, OK? -- the troubling issues still will be raised. And they probably should be, up to a point.

So there's the question Lemieux needs to answer before he steps on the ice: Does he want to be an owner, long-term; or a player again, short-term?

And Gary Bettman should insist Lemieux pick one or the other.

Terry Frei of The Denver Post is a regular contributor to His feedback e-mail address is

 More from ESPN...
Super comeback: Lemieux confirms return to ice

Morganti: Lemieux gives East a makeover
Super Mario is going to make ...

Melrose: I'd love to see it happen
Mario Lemieux's return to the ...

Morganti: Lemieux comeback still not certain
Lemeiux has been working hard ...

Lemieux's comeback stuns, delights Pens players

Terry_Frei Archive

 ESPN Tools
Email story
Most sent
Print story