SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Four-time Stanley Cup winner Claude Lemieux returned to NHL ice after a five-year absence on Tuesday, playing a part in the San Jose Sharks' 2-1 overtime victory over the Vancouver Canucks.
The 43-year-old forward spent seven minutes on the ice, fired off three shots and delivered a solid bodycheck in his first league game since May 2003.
"I've been dreaming about this since I retired," Lemieux told reporters. "The fans gave me that salute on the first shift. That meant a lot to me."
The 20-year NHL veteran played 12 shifts but was not on the ice during the later minutes of regulation or the overtime session.
"It obviously exceeds my expectations for a first game," he said. "As we go along, my expectations will rise and I'm going to want to do more and play better. But it was a good start and a special night."
His coach, Todd McLellan, agreed.
"He wasn't a liability out there and he skated well, which is something we were looking for," McLellan told reporters. "I think he's got to feel good about himself after one game. We certainly do.
"We'll come back after the All-Star break and he'll be out there and we'll see what happens," McLellan added.
Lemieux decided last year he wanted to return to the NHL and launched his comeback in September with the Central Hockey League's Arizona Sundogs.
He later played with the China Sharks in the Asian Hockey League, then joined the Worcester, Massachusetts, Sharks of the American Hockey League in November.
Riding buses with his younger team mates and often playing three games in four nights, he recorded three goals and eight assists in 23 games with Worcester.
San Jose general manager Doug Wilson insisted the call-up was based on merit.
"It's a no lose, no risk scenario," Wilson told reporters. "If he can make us a better hockey team, great."
The Sharks looked anything but great for much of Tuesday's game, needing an improbable rally to gain the victory.
Devin Setoguchi scored off a pass from Joe Thornton with 39.2 seconds left in regulation to stave off defeat and Patrick Marleau provided the game-winner on a power play 3:08 into overtime.
Despite his long absence from the league, Lemieux is not the oldest player in the NHL. Detroit Red wings defenseman Chris Chelios will be 47 on January 25.
Reporting by Gene Cherry in Salvo, North Carolina; Editing by Peter Rutherford