Five years after he retired from the National Hockey League following a 20-year career in which he won four Stanley Cups with three separate teams and the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs one year, Claude Lemieux is attempting a comeback. He is playing with the San Jose Sharks farm team in Worcester, Massachusetts, which signed him earlier this month to a minor-league contract. In 10 games, the 43-year-old native of Buckingham, Quebec, has two goals and three assists and 10 penalty minutes.
In this exclusive interview with Sportsnet.ca’s Perry Lefko, Lemieux talks about the reasons for his comeback, his decision to pick Worcester, playing in the Asian League, and his impressions of infamous super-pest Sean Avery.
Sportsnet.ca: When did you know you wanted to make a comeback?
Claude Lemieux: I’ve been wanting to do it (for some time). I just probably didn’t quite have the courage to go after it like I did this year. I almost did it last year. I started training and I felt really strong and really good. It was in May, a year and a half ago or a little more, I thought, “Let’s do it,” but there was so much going on with my (holdings) company and the real estate world and I didn’t feel I had everything lined up the way I felt I needed to. I just decided to kind of forget about that thought. At the beginning of mid-June, I made up my mind I would start training and see how far I could push myself and in July I made the commitment I was going to do whatever it took to do it.
SN: What did your wife think about your decision?
CL: At first she was very supportive, but I don’t think she thought I was as serious as I was. Then she really started to realize I was making plans to have a trainer move to Arizona and live with us. That’s when my wife and I sat down and she said, “Okay, I guess this is way more serious than I thought. Do you really think you can do it?” From that point on, she was behind me. She said, “I’m going to support you in whatever you want to do. It’s been a great five years having you home. If that’s what you feel you want to do, we’re all behind you. Go out and do it. See what it takes.” I’ve done what it takes so far and there’s more to do obviously, but I’m having a great time doing it. She’s very supportive.
SN: What was the reaction like when you contacted NHL teams about wanting to make a comeback and was San Jose the only organization that was willing to give you that chance?
CL: I had other options as far just having the opportunity to go play, but I feel and felt that the best opportunity would be here (with the Sharks farm team) based on the people involved and the management and coaching staff and the quality of people they have on board and how I see them. Obviously my goal was to demand and get an opportunity and hopefully impress them enough with my play in their back yard, so to speak, so they would give me a serious look for the Sharks.
SN: Because you live in Phoenix and had played for the Coyotes, do you contact that organization and talk to managing partner/head coach Wayne Gretzky?
CL: I had a casual conversation with Wayne about it. Some people in their organization talked to me about going to San Antonio (their farm team), but I had to look at the big picture, the overall best situation for me. Their travel with their team is very difficult compared to this travel. This is just the best situation for me.
SN: As part of your comeback, you played in China. How did you end up there?
CL: I was only there for eight days and I played for the China Stars, a team which belongs to the San Jose Sharks, in the Asia League. Before San Jose sort of agreed for me to come and play with their minor-league team, I hadn’t played any competitive hockey (for five years) and they suggested it would be a good idea if I went to China and played on the team there and I could get to skate and see how I feel. One thing led to another and I said, “I like the idea, I have never been there, let’s do it.” I played three exhibition games and two regular-season games. It was fun. I had a great time. I got to see a new part of the world and got to meet some great people.
SN: That seems as far as possible to restart a career?
CL: Yeah, but also it was a great place. It was quiet. There was no media attention. Anywhere in North America I would have tried to go play into organized hockey would have been a media zoo. My first four days in Worcester, I did three, four interviews a day. It’s just now slowing down a little bit, so that was perfect (in China) because it gave me a chance to just play and by the time the media caught on to it I was already coming back to North America, so it was good in that regard.
The hockey there is good. A lot of the games are on television and they get pretty good coverage. There are a lot of people living in these countries. There’s one team in China, two in Korea and four in Japan. They get TV coverage and minor-league hockey attendance — 3,000-4,000, sometimes less, sometimes more — and they’ve got great buildings and anywhere from five to seven imports on the team and most of them played in North America, some played in the NHL, some played in the American League, and they get treated very well. It’s very well structured.
SN: What was it like scoring a goal in the AHL after being out of the North American game for so long?
CL: It was a thrill. I was really excited. The dream of scoring goals again, when you’ve been retired for so long, you don’t think it will happen again. Whether you’re playing in a pickup game or whatever, it’s always exciting to go out and score, but to do it at a professional level…I’m not getting a break here. When I get the puck, I’ve got people coming my way. There’s goalies out there that would rather come out an extra two feet and make sure to cover the angle so I’m not going to score. It’s been a little of an adjustment in that regard. I can sense quite a few times coming down that angle goaltenders coming way out. It’s a fun experience for them and for me it’s a challenge.
SN: Is that because they don’t want to get embarrassed by you?
CL: Yeah, they play me hard. I’m sure their coaches are saying, “You guys are 20-years old, 22, you’re not going to go and get embarrassed by a guy twice your age and retired.” I’ve got to battle hard for the puck, so it’s been good competition; really, really strong battles and good team hockey. It’s exactly what I need.
SN: When you were playing full-time and saw athletes in other sports making comebacks after various years in retirement, did you understand what they were trying to do and do you now have an even greater understanding of that given what you’re trying to do?
CL: There are special athletes who have done special things. A lot of boxers have come out of retirement and boxed again. There are not many (high-level) athletes (who have tried to come out of retirement). These guys are just very unique players and I certainly don’t consider myself to be in that category. I just think if and when I do it, it will be an accomplishment to have made it back there and then after that the next step is how well you do while you’re there. So I don’t think will I make it and then it’s a celebration; it’s just the beginning. The celebration is while you were there, what did you accomplish and how did you contribute and did you help your team be a better team. Like I tell my kids, “It’s nice to go to very special schools — private schools — but the bragging is not about saying you went to a school; it’s about what did you get done while you were at that school. For me actually, I see it as an opportunity to get back in the NHL. I’m really excited about having the chance. I’m here by myself. This is what I think about every day. Every minute of the day I’m thinking about what I’m doing here; thinking about everything I can do to be successful.
SN: You’ve had an outstanding career, particularly in the playoffs, but some people only remember your hit on Kris Draper. If you are successful in making it back to the NHL, how do you think that will impact on the way people view you and your career?
CL: That doesn’t really matter to me. You can never unanimously please everybody. There’s always people that regardless of what you do they’re always going to want to remember the negative; the people that get up every morning and look for something negative, the glass is always half empty, it’s never full. That’s just the way it is. Will they look back and say, “That was an incredible accomplishment” or “I still remember that hit on Draper.” That doesn’t matter. What matter is how my family feels about what I’m doing and my friends and how I feel about it and then the great, great wonderful hockey people that I consulted with throughout my process of doing this. That’s what matters: what these people think and how they looked at it. There were a lot of lonely days. Don’t get me wrong. You carry your own gear, you go to the rink at six in the morning because there’s no ice available. But the reward is when you get here, playing pro hockey in the best development league in the world.
SN: Some people have compared Sean Avery to you, although one of your former teammates, Bobby Holik, recently was quoted as saying, “First and foremost, Claude Lemieux is a completely different player. I think Claude Lemieux and Sean Avery should not be mentioned in the same sentence. And Sean Avery shouldn’t be mentioned period.” What are your thoughts about Avery’s “sloppy second” remarks, his ability as a hockey player and comparisons to you?
CL: That stuff (what he said) doesn’t fly with me. I was never like that. I kept on the ice what I had to do and I never took it outside. Never. Ever. I didn’t appreciate (what he said) and it has no place in hockey or in any sport in my opinion. As a player, I have a hard time comparing myself to him. I kind of actually appreciate the way he works, the way he plays. He’s a hard worker. Does he have the same level of talent that I have or that I once had? It’s not for me to judge. I think the numbers speak for themselves. I have no problem with the guy unless he’s going to position himself in front of the goalie and start doing whatever he did last year (in front of New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur, waving his arms and trying to distract him). That was crossing the line, but we’ve all done things we regret so I’m not there to trash Avery. I’d rather be compared to Mark Messier or Esa Tikkanen than Avery, but it is what it is.
SN: Have you envisioned that first game back in the NHL?
CL: I just know for the last five years, I’ve said to myself I would give anything to be standing on the blueline and listening to the national anthem and getting ready to play an NHL game again, even if that’s a regular-season game. If it was a playoff game, that would be just incredible.
SN: Have you put a timeline on how long you think it will take you to get back to the NHL?
CL: It’s really hard to put a timeline, but obviously with kids and school and the schedule, you kind of feel that pressure depending on where you would go and how far it would be to travel. Those are important questions. But right now, another week or two or a month isn’t going to make a difference. I just kind of play it day by day, week by week.
SN: Do you think that what you’re doing will be viewed upon in the history of hockey as something extraordinary and quite different?
CL: People have asked me that question and talked to me about it, so obviously I’m conscience of it. It’s like when I was at the peak of my career and won back-to-back Stanley Cups with two different teams. I really didn’t think about that. I just thought about winning; thought about playing. Right now I’m thinking about being as prepared, doing everything I can do to play hockey in the NHL again. I don’t get caught up in thinking it’s a bigger deal than it is. Of course it is. I am very serious about it, but it is still a game, I still have to go out there and enjoy myself and play hard and not let what’s going on get bigger than the actual game that I’m playing.