SAN JOSE, Calif. - Claude Lemieux returned to the NHL on Tuesday night after an absence of more than 5 1/2 years, suiting up for the San Jose Sharks against Vancouver.
The 43-year-old Lemieux is a four-time Stanley Cup winner and former playoff MVP, but he hadn't played in hockey's top league since the 2003 post-season with Dallas. He began his comeback nearly two months ago with the top minor league affiliate of the Sharks, who recalled him for their final game before the all-star break.
Lemieux wore a teal No. 32 jersey when he skated out among his teammates for pre-game warmups. He entered the game with 17:56 left in the first period, receiving a steady round of cheers from the Shark Tank crowd while joining Jody Shelley and Tomas Plihal on the Sharks' fourth line.
"This is the best life in the world - to go out and perform in front of fans, to do what you love to do," Lemieux said before the game. "Why wouldn't you want to (come back)?"
He expected to be nearly as nervous as he was before his NHL debut with the Montreal Canadiens nearly 24 years earlier, but it didn't show against the Canucks.
He looked eager to recapture his usual agitating form from his first shift, landing one big hit and nearly connecting on a few more. He also took a quick shot on goalie Roberto Luongo with about 6 1/2 minutes left in the first period.
Lemieux won Stanley Cups with Montreal (1986), New Jersey (1995 and 2000) and Colorado (1996), earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP for the Devils in 1995. He dabbled in real-estate investment and briefly ran an ECHL team during his retirement, but had been eager to attempt a comeback since shortly after leaving the NHL.
The Sharks began the night tied with Boston for the overall league lead. General manager Doug Wilson has simple expectations for Lemieux, who replaced two young forwards on San Jose's roster so the kids can keep playing with the AHL's Worcester Sharks during the all-star break.
"He's the type of guy you didn't want to see on the other team, but you'd love to have him in your dressing room," said Wilson, a longtime friend of Lemieux.