By KEVIN KELLY
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000
TAMPA -- The 20-year-old slid into the padded blue seat, craned his neck and wondered in a voice that bordered on worried.
"Is he there? Is he there? Where is he?" Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier asked teammate Brad Richards on Thursday morning at the Ice Palace.
Sitting on the visiting team's bench, out of sight because he was bent over tying his skate laces, was Mario Lemieux.
"I never really got to see him play because I was in Montreal and I grew up watching the Montreal Canadians and Detroit Red Wings, so I'm very excited," Lecavalier said before leaving his locker room to watch the Penguins' morning skate. "He's an unbelievable hockey player."
In his third practice since announcing his return after a 3 1/2-year layoff, Pittsburgh's 35-year-old owner and three-time league MVP skated for 90 minutes before a small audience that included a half-dozen Lightning players.
"The wind is pretty good," said Lemieux, who bought the franchise 18 months ago. "The legs are a little bit weak right now, but I know I'm going to have be patient the next couple of weeks and try to get my legs underneath me and make sure they're strong enough to compete out there."
Lemieux is scheduled to return against Toronto Dec. 27.
The news has Lightning players looking forward to a March 17 home game and April 4 road game against Pittsburgh.
"He's right up there with (Wayne) Gretzky for me," Richards said. "I didn't get to see Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe and players like Phil Esposito. I was born in the '80s so I saw Gretzky and I saw Mario Lemieux in their prime. They were amazing."
Lemieux is no stranger to comebacks.
He battled serious back problems and Hodgkin's disease before retiring in 1997 with 613 goals, 1,494 points and two Stanley Cup championships. "I think this comeback will be the easiest of them all," said Lemieux, who plans to finish the season.
Though he only started skating Nov. 1, assistant coach Joe Mullen said Lemieux is steadily progressing and should be ready Wednesday.
"He looks good," Mullen said. "You can see that he still has the smoothness out there, still got the hands. Of course, being off three years, he's got to work on his conditioning to catch up with the rest of the guys.
"With him, I think he still has it. I think he's young enough."