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McKenna has earned right to ride shotgun

| Sunday, Feb. 9, 2003

If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times.

"Mario is a big guy. He can take care of himself." Referees said it. Opposing coaches and players said it, heck, even many of his teammates said it over the years. The kind of pre-meditated abuse that Mario Lemieux took from Florida Panthers defenseman Brad Ference on Thursday night was an everyday occurence in the mid to late 1980s for the man Canadian TV commentator Don Cherry once called "the most abused superstar in the history of sports." But, hey, Mario's a big guy and he can take care of himself, right•

As a 6'4" 215 lb rookie, Lemieux was big alright, but he not exactly Herculean. His upper body was, well, underdeveloped. His hands, like the paws of a puppy, were as big then as they are now, and they were certainly capable of doing some damage when clenched in a fist. He first unleashed his fury in the NHL in his very first home game against little Gary Lupul of the Vancouver Canucks, who had been agitating him during the game. Lemieux dropped his gloves and started wailing on Lupul with roundhouse punches, and a melee ensued, not unlike the one we witnessed on Thursday night.

Some theorize that Lemieux's willingness to fight in just his second NHL game actually sent a mixed message to opposing players and NHL referees. They wonder why Lemieux should have expected any preferential treatment and protection from abuse, when he is so obviously capable of handling himself.

Unlike Wayne Gretzky, who was smaller but no less slightly built up top, Lemieux spent much of his career without the protection of an enforcer riding shotgun to handle players like Brad Ference when they step out of line.

Steve McKenna fills that role now, and probably deserves a chance to play alongside Lemieux on occasion, which is exactly why Rick Kehoe put him there Saturday, just as Marty McSorley and Dave Semenko played on Gretzky's wing in his heyday. McKenna made the most of the opportunity, scoring two goals in yesterday's game.

McKenna also came to the aid of Lemieux on Thursday night, challenging Ference to a fight even before Lemieux did so. Ten years ago, McKenna's actions would have been enough to satisfy Lemieux, but the bigger, stronger,more physically fit Mario, seemed almost anxious to impose his own form of justice against Ference. Lemieux's fisticuffs certainly have drawn a lot of attention, just as they did the night he attacked Gary Lupul 18 years ago. ESPN led Sportscenter with the highlights of the dust-up, and now everybody in the sports world knows that Lemieux is only willing to take so much before he snaps. Lemieux has received three fighting majors in the regular season, and one in the playoffs, in his career. Three of them came against the Washington Capitals. He won a unanimous decision over Bobby Carpenter of the Caps in his rookie season, lost by a technical knocout to the Caps' Bobby Gould in 1987, and, more or less attacked Todd Krygier of the Caps in the 1996 playoffs. The Gould incident represents the end of an era in Lemieux's fighting career. He dropped the gloves, and began pawing at Gould, who hauled back and delivered a left hook, nearly breaking Lemieux's right jaw. A woozy Mario had to be helped off the ice, and he didn't fight again for nine years. The lesson was this: If you drop your gloves, make sure you throw the first punch. It certainly appeared as though Lemieux had not forgotten that lesson Thursday night. Ference turtled, but the message was clear. Lemieux is, indeed, capable of taking care of himself.

But having McKenna alongside means that Lemieux won't have to prove it again anytime soon.

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