Winter Classic: Lemieux to lead Penguins alumni against Capitals

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Mario Lemieux called his Hall of Fame buddy Paul Coffey not many days ago to gauge his interest in participating in a Penguins alumni game against former Washington Capitals players in conjunction with the upcoming Winter Classic.

Coffey, the fleet defenseman who fed the highly skilled center so many pucks in the late 1980s and early '90s, was quickly on board.

"Are you going to be up the middle for the long pass?" Coffey asked.

"I'm not going to be as fast as I used to be," Lemieux told him.

"Well, the pass is probably not going to be on your blade, either," Coffey replied.

Hockey players, huh?

"Guys just pick up where they left off," Coffey said Friday. "They laugh at the same jokes. Their mannerisms are always the same."

The alumni game will be outdoors at 9:30 a.m. Dec. 31 at Heinz Field, site of the Jan. 1 outdoor Winter Classic between the current Penguins and Capitals. Following the alumni game, the Penguins will hold a practice at 11:30 a.m. on the Heinz Field rink. One $25 ticket is good for the alumni game and practice.

Because of preparation that will be ongoing and to keep things manageable, capacity for the Dec. 31 events is limited to 10,000.

Only a handful of names have been confirmed, but Coffey and Lemieux will be joined by fellow Hall of Famers Ron Francis and Bryan Trottier -- they all were a part of one or both of the Penguins' first two Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992 -- as well as recently retired winger Bill Guerin and 1985 second overall draft pick Craig Simpson.

Former Penguins coach and general manager Eddie Johnston will be one of the club's coaches, and Jack Riley, the team's original general manager, has been asked to serve as honorary GM.

The only Capitals alumnus known so far is Peter Bondra, who was part of an earlier version of a strong Penguins-Washington rivalry through the 1990s. That preceded the intense rivalry now that centers around Sidney Crosby of the Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals.

RSVPs are still arriving. Simpson, for example, read about the game online Friday and contacted the Penguins. He already was scheduled to be in Pittsburgh to work at the Winter Classic as a broadcaster for a Canadian network.

There are whispers that at least one or two players who suited up for both NHL teams will participate and perhaps switch sides during the game -- but, no, star winger Jaromir Jagr, who fits that category, is not expected to be here. He is playing in Europe.

The game pitting former players was the brainchild of Lemieux, now a Penguins co-owner. He reached out to Coffey and Francis, and their enthusiastic response spurred Lemieux to push to make sure the game happened.

Lemieux, 45, has not played in a game since he retired in January 2006. But he dons skates when he coaches his son, Austin. He and Crosby were the first to skate at Consol Energy Center. And Lemieux occasionally skates with individual children at the request of charities. But this might be the last time anyone gets to see him play.

"It's been a long time since a lot of us have had an opportunity to skate with Mario," Trottier said. "That brings a lot of added excitement for everyone -- us players, fans, everyone.

"This will bring back some great relationships with the alumni, a lot of memories from childhood skating outdoors on the frozen ponds. It's really, really special. Mario's one of my favorite people in all the world. To whatever degree he supported this or helped make it happen, God bless him."

The format for the alumni game is still being worked out, but there will be no hitting -- Guerin, 40, probably will be the whippersnapper of the lot.

If weather conditions don't allow for the alumni game to be played on the Heinz Field rink, it will be moved indoors to Consol Energy Center.

Although the event will serve as something of a reunion and no doubt offer the former players a chance to reminisce and laugh, it's still a game.

"We've got to get some practice just to get the rust off," Trottier, 54, said. "When it comes to playing, whatever level of skill, all the guys will be competitive. It's no hitting, so that will make the next day a little less tense. We all recognize where we are in life."

Coffey, 49, was asked about his first reaction when Lemieux called.

"I looked down to see how big my gut was," he cracked. "I'm in training -- I did a couple pushups yesterday."

In reality, he is thrilled that he can bring his two sons to watch not only the alumni game but also the Winter Classic. Coffey played for Edmonton in the first outdoor NHL game, the 2003 Heritage Classic, a 4-3 Montreal win in frigid Edmonton.

"The good thing about it is, we're still somewhat young enough to at least go out there and play," Coffey said.

Tickets for the alumni game will be available starting at 10 a.m. Friday at www.ticketmaster.com or 1-800-745-3000.


For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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