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Owners taking the hands-on approach

by Dan Moscoe

Watching Mario Lemieux as he made his rounds in Japan this past October, one could sense there was something very wrong with the picture. At various functions in Tokyo leading up to the National Hockey League opening games, here was this strapping 6-foot-5 man, just turned 35, looking healthy and fit after beating Hodgkin’s disease seven years ago. Lemieux was here as owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he looked capable of stepping back on the ice at the drop of a puck and being — as his name means in French — the best.

On game days at Saitama Super Arena, Lemieux seemed uncomfortable in his luxury box, watching helplessly as Pittsburgh split the two-game series against a less-talented Nashville team.

With the stunning news that Mario the Magnificent will dust off his No. 66 Penguins jersey and return as a player, the picture has been righted.

Regardless of Lemieux’s financial motives, his unprecedented comeback is great news for the Penguins, the NHL and any fan of hockey. It also gives a whole new meaning to the expression “hands-on owner.” Now that an ownership group in Phoenix involving Wayne Gretzky has been approved, could another comeback be far behind? After all, a Gretzky comeback would ensure (at least temporarily) the health of hockey in the desert. Don’t bet on jersey No. 99 coming down from the rafters. Gretzky turns 40 next month, and with his slight frame and history of back problems, coming back would be physically risky. Unlike Lemieux in 1997, Gretzky was no longer a dominant player when he fittingly hung up his blades in ’99. Mind you, with Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick on his wings, the Great One would be a lock for 80 points a season.

We have to wonder if Washington Wizards owner Michael Jordan is now contemplating a Third Coming. His woeful Wizards wallow second-to-last in the NBA standings, above only the team Jordan retired from twice, the now-pitiful Chicago Bulls.

Imagine, if the NBA allowed it, how good for Jordan’s business a comeback with the Wiz would be: Sellouts every game, certain improvement in the team’s performance, and Jordan wouldn’t even have to pay himself what he’s worth.

Other than Lemieux, Gretzky and Jordan, no other big-league sports owner could even dream of playing to help his team’s cause. Lately, though, some bosses are doing everything short of suiting up. Jordan’s fellow owner in Dallas, dot-com billionaire Mark Cuban, has been highly visible since taking control of the Mavericks midway through last season. One of his first moves was to roll out the red carpet for Dennis Rodman, a basket case no one else in the league would touch. Cuban has also gained notoriety for referee baiting and wild cheering from behind the bench. In an eight-day stretch last month, Cuban racked up fines of $5,000, $15,000 and $25,000 for three separate incidents of ref abuse. In the time it takes to finish reading this sentence, Cuban just made enough money to cover those fines.

Fortunately for the Mavericks, the Internet magnate wised up after his third slap on the wrist. At recent home games, Cuban has watched quietly from the stands, and it’s not the fear of having to cough up more pocket change that’s holding him back. More likely, Cuban realized that all the distractions weren’t doing his team any good.

Another young billionaire, 35-year-old Daniel Snyder, is in his own high-stakes fantasy football league as meddlesome owner of the Washington Redskins. He bought the team for an NFL-record $800 million in 1999, then spent $100 million on mercenaries who were supposed to deliver a Super Bowl this winter.

Turns out the ‘Skins won’t even make the playoffs. Last week, after almost two seasons of publicly denigrating Norv Turner, Snyder finally lowered the guillotine on the well-respected (by everyone else) coach. Word in Washington is that Snyder has been dictating coaching decisions — including starting Jeff George over Brad Johnson at quarterback — and will continue the policy toward Turner’s replacement, Terry Robiskie. There’s a natural temptation for an owner to take charge and put his stamp on a franchise. After all, it’s a huge investment. George Steinbrenner learned, after 15 years of running underachieving New York Yankee teams, to resist that temptation. Since a lower-profile version of “The Boss” started leaving on-field decisions to manager Joe Torre and most personnel moves to GM Brian Cashman, he’s watched his Yankees win four World Series titles in five years.

Owners of consistently winning franchises are those who hire or inherit quality decision-makers and allow them to run the show. Once those people are in place, an owner should limit his involvement to signing the checks.

Unless, of course, his name is Lemieux, Gretzky or Jordan.