An emotional Mario Lemieux waved goodbye to the NHL for a second and final time on Tuesday.

Lemieux, part-owner and star forward for the Pittsburgh Penguins, told reporters he would not be resuming his playing career, six weeks after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat.

"This is always a difficult decision to make for any athlete," said Lemieux, who retired in 1997 because of health issues and returned three years later.

"I feel the time has come. It is in the best interest of myself, my family and the Pittsburgh Penguins."

Lemieux, 40, listed health, family and an inability to play at an elite level as his reasons for retiring.

Lemieux overcame chronic back and hip injuries and even Hodgkin's disease to play 16-plus NHL seasons, but this latest health problem still has him feeling less than 100 per cent.

"I can no longer play at the level that I was accustomed to in the past," Lemieux said. "That has been very frustrating to me in the past year."

Lemieux, one of the most gifted players in hockey history, had been sidelined for more than a month with atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can be treated with medication.

Lemieux practiced two weeks ago - the first time he had been on skates since Dec. 16 - but couldn't offer a timetable for his return to the lineup.

He finished with 22 points and a minus-16 rating in 26 games.

"The new NHL is for the young guys," Lemieux said. "We have some young guys dominating it and a few here in Pittsburgh. They are the future of the NHL. And I look forward to watching them play."

Lemieux was chosen first overall by Pittsburgh in the 1984 NHL draft, and later led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992.

Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1997, he ranks seventh all-time with 690 goals and 1,033 assists for 1,723 points in 915 NHL games.

Lemieux also won six NHL scoring titles, was named the league's most valuable player three times and captured two Conn Smythe trophies as playoff MVP.

"I've done pretty much everything I set out to do," he said. "Winning two Stanley Cups allows me to leave the game in peace."

Lemieux captained Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games, then again at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.

But he withdrew his name from consideration for next month's Torino Olympics, citing health problems.

"He's done everything, not only for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but when called upon here in Canada," said Eric Lindros of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"Mario's exceptional play earned him accolades," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement released Tuesday.

"His ability to face adversity earned him respect. His devotion to Pittsburgh and the Penguins earned him admiration.

"His dedication to hockey, at both the NHL and international levels, earned him the enduring appreciation and thanks of everyone associated with the game. We celebrate his playing career and wish him only the best in the future."

Wayne Gretzky echoed Bettman's sentiments, taking comfort in the notion that the NHL is in good shape thanks to the emergence of rookies such as Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.

"He has meant so much to not only the National Hockey League, but the city of Pittsburgh and that franchise," Gretzky said of Lemieux, who took a pass from the Great One and scored the decisive goal with 1:26 remaining in the championship final of the 1987 Canada Cup.

"The good news is we've got some good, young players, like Crosby and Ovechkin, come along. So I'm sure they'll carry the torch."

Lemieux is the second member of the Penguins to retire in the past week, following forward Zigmund Palffy, who retired due to a lingering shoulder injury.

Lemieux can now focus on selling the Penguins, which is in the preliminary stages.

He also plans to step down as chief executive officer, but he will remain chairman of the board.

Penguins president Ken Sawyer will take over as CEO.

with files from CP Online