01/15/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
Little Austin Lemieux looked as if he had just seen Santa Claus—and, in a way, he had. Watching with eyes wide, the 4-year-old stood open-mouthed as, two days after Christmas, a huge No. 66 banner—his father Mario's number—was lowered from the dome of Pittsburgh's packed Mellon Arena. The stirring ceremony heralded a special present for Pittsburgh Penguins fans, and for Austin in particular: He was going to get to watch his father play hockey. "He loves the game and he's never seen his dad play live," says Penguin assistant coach Joe Mullen, a former teammate of No. 66's. "This is one of the greatest players in the world, and it would be a shame if his kid never got the chance to see him play."
And so, after a 3½-year retirement, the remarkable Mario Lemieux returned to the rink, shaking off any rust to notch a goal and two assists in the Penguins' 5-0 romp over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Modern hockey's greatest star not named Gretzky, Lemieux, 35, had become the Penguins' owner and CEO during his retirement, and has thus become the only owner-player in U.S. professional sports. "It's been a great adjustment," says Lemieux. "But the players treat me as one of the guys, and that's what I want."
But will he ever really just be one of the guys? Fat chance. For one thing, Lemieux has a history of superhuman comebacks. In the first 12 years of his career, he returned from two major back surgeries and a bout with Hodgkin's disease on the way to six scoring titles and two Stanley Cup championships. Still there have been whispers that his latest comeback has pragmatic motives, such as keeping the Penguins' other superstar, Lemieux's protégé Jaromir Jagr, from bolting the slumping team. "I wanted to be traded," admits Jagr. "Now it's a different atmosphere. The change is going to be good for me." For his part, Lemieux dismisses cynics who say his comeback is just to sell tickets. "It is good for business," he says. "But it's my passion for hockey that brought me back."
One of three sons born to a construction worker and his wife in a Montreal suburb, Lemieux started skating with his older brothers when he was 3 and "was always very competitive," he says. "Every time I stepped on the ice, I wanted to win." An elegant, powerful skater, the 6'4" Lemieux was the first pick in the 1984 National Hockey League draft and eventually turned the moribund Penguins into a powerhouse. Yet he played most of his career with serious back pain. "He never wore socks because he couldn't bend over to get them off," says Mullen. In 1993 Lemieux was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease but played in a game five hours after his final radiation treatment. "Sure he was scared," says his friend and agent Steve Reich. "But he said, 'I can beat this,' and he attacked it."
Lemieux finally retired in 1997, but after the Penguins nearly went bankrupt in 1998, he assembled an ownership group to keep the team in Pittsburgh. "I really enjoyed my time off," says Lemieux, who spent much of it in his Tudor-style manor in Sewickley, Pa., with wife Nathalie, daughters Lauren, 7, Stephanie, 5, Alexa, 3, and Austin. "But I didn't want to have played here 12 years and then see the team leave after I retired."
Lemieux started training for his return in November. "I laughed when he said it," says Jagr. "I told him he'd be too slow." Dismissing worries about his fitness or back, Lemieux says the upside of his comeback—treating Austin to the real thing instead of the old game tapes they watch together—outweighs the risks. "He was born 3½ months premature and weighed 2 lbs. 5 ozs.," he says of his son. "We had some tough nights, but now he's in great shape and loves to play hockey. He's got some talent!"
Runs in the family. Right after Lemieux's first game back, Austin dashed into the locker room, spotted his father, pointed excitedly and cried, "I saw you!" Super Mario had scored his greatest goal.
Cynthia Wang in Pittsburgh