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LEMIEUX SIGNS DEAL WORTH $42 MILLION

Mario Lemieux got the deal of a lifetime on Monday.

On Lemieux's 27th birthday, and the eve of the NHL season-opener, the Penguins announced that their megastar center had signed a record seven-year contract.Although the Penguins would not release terms of the contract other than its length, Lemieux had said earlier that the deal was worth $42 million, nearly double what anyone makes in the NHL.

Philadelphia's Eric Lindros, who will face the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins in Tuesday night's season-opener in Pittsburgh, signed a six-year, $21 million deal earlier this year.

The Penguins also had been expected to name their coach for the 1992-93 season on Monday, but they deferred that until Tuesday morning's skate. They have been without a head coach since negotiations between Scotty Bowman and general manager Craig Patrick broke down over the summer.

"It was a great birthday present," Lemieux said at a splashy news conference at a midtown hotel. "Ownership is dedicated to keeping a great team in Pittsburgh, and I want to be part of it."

Lemieux also thanked his agent, Tom Reich, for negotiating the contract.

"He's the best agent in the world," Lemieux said. "He's proved it to me in the last couple of contracts."

Lemieux still had two years to go under his old contract, which paid him about $12 million over five years. That ranked him fourth in the NHL salary scale.

Now he's second to none.

"Mario has been loyal to this franchise," Penguins owner Howard Baldwin said in making the contract announcement. "We would be remiss if we allowed Mario to leave Pittsburgh and take him away from our fans."

Asked if the unprecedented contract would create an imbalance in the NHL salary structure, Baldwin responded:

"If we didn't think it was a prudent investment, we wouldn't have made it. We expect to get a return for our money."

Lemieux said they would then addressed the most pressing question of the day - what about his back problems which have forced him to miss 66 games in the last two seasons and part of last season's playoffs?

"My back is in great shape," he said. "It has been in great shape all summer."