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Lemieux starts the long road back

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WORCESTER, Mass. – You could call Claude Lemieux “the Comeback Kid.” Except that at his age, he’s no kid. And as for the comeback part, now that’s where it gets interesting.

Five years after hanging up his skates for good – or so he thought at the time – the feisty (some prefer to call him dirty) Lemieux is back in the game he loves, but hasn’t always loved him back.

You can ask anyone in Detroit about that.

Looking lively but a bit grizzled, Lemieux is just about halfway into a 25-game professional tryout contract with the Worcester Sharks, the American Hockey League farm club of the San Jose Sharks.

“Every game is an opportunity to play pro hockey again,” Lemieux said. “For me, that’s what I wanted to do, and that’s what I’m here for. My goal’s to get back in the NHL. In the meantime, this is a lot of fun.”

So far, so good.

The drive in the legs is still there. Or at least there’s enough torque in them to make you forget that they are 43 years old.

The drive in his heart is still there, too.

Why else would Lemieux be putting himself through a world of hurt when he could be home in Phoenix leisurely chasing golf balls?

Most importantly, the dream is there, just waiting to come to pass.

What he doesn’t have, right now at least, is a firm offer from an NHL team that would make that dream a reality.

So while he waits for one of those, he’s content to stretch those legs and rev up that drive in the AHL, a league he last experienced firsthand back in 1986.

Half of Lemieux’s Worcester teammates weren’t yet born then.

Since, Lemieux carved out a 20-year NHL career, a spot on four Stanley Cup winners, and a reputation as one of the more prickly competitors in all of hockey.

Now, after tiring of retirement, Lemieux is back to riding buses and playing three games each weekend with no guarantee that the road will lead anywhere but to Worcester.

“I have no complaints with the body. I feel good, or else I wouldn’t be here," he said. "Physically, you’ve got to be able to do this. I’ve had three games in three nights, and four in five. So far so good.”

Lemieux began entertaining the far fetched comeback notion one day last summer.

His restlessness prompted him to dial up friends in high places throughout the NHL.

He got a nibble from Sharks’ general manager Doug Wilson.

“When he called me,” Wilson started, “he was looking for the opportunity, and I steered him toward (Worcester GM) Wayne Thomas and our American Hockey League team. Our farm team has provided him with the opportunity to play games. Claude is there like any other player and working hard. We’d like to see Claude be successful.”

Wilson, whose past gambits with other veterans have provided dividends (Jeremy Roenick for one, Rob Blake for another), said he had nothing to lose by giving Lemieux a shot.

“When it comes to players like that,” Wilson said, “we believe in them having opportunities to pursue the game. There have been different examples of players, be it a Jeremy Roenick or a Sandis Ozolinsh. All I’ve tried to do is advise him on some opportunities to go back and play hockey.”

With his foot through the door, Lemieux has taken advantage of the opening, scoring two goals and adding three assists, while seeing plenty of second-line and power-play duty.

One of those goals, a game-winner against Portland, was vintage Lemieux – he took the lead pass in full stride, pulled out the goalie with a move and dotted the upper corner of the net.

Just like old times.

“He knew what he was doing with it (the puck) when he got it,” Worcester coach Roy Sommer said.

Besides that, Lemieux has been even or better in eight of his first 10 games, has forced enemy goalies to handle the puck (firing eight shots at Bridgeport’s Peter Mannino in his second game), and has been a positive voice in Sommer’s dressing room.

The only thing he hasn’t done is agitate, which was his calling card for two decades.

Then again, no AHLer has stepped up to challenge the forward who is twice the age of most of his combatants.

Not yet, anyway.

“Not many guys at our level get an opportunity to play alongside, let alone learn from, someone like him," Sommer said. "He seems to be into it. I guess we’ll know in a month, how into it he is.”

Lemieux insists that he’s into it for the long haul, or as long as Worcester will have him.

Or better yet, until the NHL comes calling.

With his track record for playoff success, who’s to say that such a call won’t come?

He could be the final piece that puts San Jose – or someone else over the top.

And if that call doesn't come?

Lemieux says he’ll walk away with no regrets.

“I’ll have none regardless what happens,” he said. “I feel good about my opportunity to play here, then get the next opportunity. I feel down deep it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of time.”

Time.

That’s a luxury not given to many 43-year-old hockey players.

Then again, there haven‘t been many like Claude Lemieux.

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