I confess, when Claude Lemieux announced last summer that he planned to make a return to pro hockey, I laughed. He was forty-three, hadn't played in the NHL in five years and was pretty useless when he did play. But then the reports came out of the Phoenix camp, where he was skating with their prospects and it turned out the old guy didn't really look out of place. Then he signed a two-way contract with the Sharks and immediately went to China for some pro-level conditioning games. China? I laughed again.
But Lemieux persevered, and he played 23 games with Worcester in the American Hockey League, during which he scored eleven points. Now, against all odds, he's been called up to the NHL. The Sharks plan to give him four to eight minutes a game on the fourth line, let him acclimatize to the speed of the big league, and hope he can still raise his game to superhero levels in the playoffs like he did for Montreal, Colorado and New Jersey.
Pepe was one of my favourites when he was a Hab. He was nasty and annoying and...a winner. He won everywhere he went. So, on one hand I'm really happy to see this Cinderella story come true for a former Canadien who did almost as much as Patrick Roy to bring the '86 Cup to Montreal. On the other, I'm a little bit bitter. Now that Lemieux has come this far in his drive for a return to the NHL, I'm afraid of what he'll do for San Jose.
The Sharks are a very, very strong team, but one that's haunted by a legacy of playoff futility. Adding a guy who knows how to win, like Lemieux, can only be good for them. And, considering the fact that the Canadiens really want to win the Centennial Cup this year, that's bad for the Habs.
It makes me wonder why Bob Gainey never does anything like Doug Wilson did when he gave Claude Lemieux a chance. The Sharks had nothing to lose. It was a PR stunt to let the old skunk try out for their team. If he fails, they're on the hook for nothing but a minor-league salary. But if he succeeds, then they might just have gained that little bit of a post-season edge that could put them over the top. The Canadiens could have taken that chance too. What a story it would have been if Lemieux had made a comeback in Montreal twenty-three years after helping the team win a Cup as a rookie! But for whatever reason, Gainey decided not to extend a hand to Lemieux. I hope it was because Gainey knows Claude well and reasoned that such an offer could have detrimental effects in the room, or something like that.
If Gainey passed over Lemieux without at least considering making him an offer, I worry the Habs GM is too conservative or unimaginative to give his team a leg up on the other teams scrabbling to be the best. The Sharks, on the surface, didn't need extra help this year. They're rolling along on top of the league standings. But Wilson is willing to try anything to make his team even better and give it any advantage he can.
We'll see how Pepe does in San Jose. Maybe it'll turn out that he can no longer keep up with the pace in the NHL and the experiment will be filed under "not happening." But, maybe he'll step up and bring a bit of a spark to a team that needs one in the post season. It'll be interesting to watch the story unfold. I just can't help wishing it was unfolding in Montreal.