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Madden: It's time for Jagr to act like Lemieux

Saturday, November 11, 2000

Jaromir Jagr, predictably, was contrite after practice Thursday. Almost apologetic. The Penguins' captain never meant to undermine Coach Ivan Hlinka or to put himself ahead of the team.

Nope, Jagr insists he's upset about the way he's playing, and that's it.

Problem is, what Jagr said Thursday couldn't change what he did Wednesday, when he engaged in an embarrassingly frantic exchange with Hlinka on the way off the ice after the second period of the Penguins' game against Philadelphia, a moment captured on national TV by ESPN. When he refused to go on the ice for a power-play shift in the third period. When he obviously was distraught even while his team was pounding the hated Flyers, 5-2, normally cause for a celebration rivaling V-J Day.

What Jagr said Thursday couldn't change what he did during the Penguins' three-game road trip, when he told every writer within earshot that the Penguins don't know how to play. It couldn't erase the memory of his "here's what we should do" chalk talk, a seeming mutiny to some.

Jagr's actions and statements weren't malicious. Far from it. They were the residue of frustration, frustration born of desire and competitiveness. But they were nonetheless extremely ill-advised.

Right now is when Jagr should take after his idol, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux. Right now, in fact, is when Jagr could likely use a little advice from Mario.

When Lemieux ruled the NHL as the world's best hockey player, he just as assuredly ruled the Penguins. He might have had more control of the team then than he does now.

But Lemieux knew how to keep things quiet. When he wanted to romance a coach concerning one of his ideas, he did it one-on-one behind closed doors. He didn't tell the media. He didn't usually involve his teammates. He certainly didn't conduct Shakespeare in the Park in front of a national TV audience.

No, Lemieux worked the system from the inside. He got what he wanted a lot more often than he didn't.

And Lemieux's ideas worked. Any game's best player knows how to play said game. Remember the '92 playoffs, when Mario suggested a trap, of all things, to help the Penguins come back from a three-games-to-one deficit against Washington? That story leaked to the press, even though Lemieux took the precaution of not diagramming his strategy on a chalkboard, then blabbing about it to everyone.

Jagr has good ideas, too. His line shouldn't play the left-wing lock, a primarily defensive strategy favored by Hlinka. Nor should Alexei Kovalev's line. If you've got those guns, fire them. Smart suggestion. Just make it in private. A news release isn't necessary.

Lemieux also knew how to take responsibility. When the Penguins were losing, Lemieux always put the heat on himself. I make the big money, Mario would say, so I should be scoring more. Jagr -- who makes $10 million -- says that sometimes, too. But sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes Jagr says that the Penguins don't know how to play, his litany on the recently completed road trip.

The banishment of Coach Scotty Bowman from Penguins practice ice aside, Lemieux rarely looked bad when it came to political matters. Jagr looks pretty bad right now.

Fortunately, the Penguins don't. The Penguins look pretty good right now.

Despite Jagr slumping by his standards, despite a trip to Japan, despite a trip out West, despite goalie Jean-Sebastien Aubin reporting late because of a contract dispute, despite a humiliating, 9-0 home loss to New Jersey, the Penguins were 7-5-2 and atop the Atlantic Division going into their game at New Jersey last night.

The goaltending has been good, the defense solid. The Penguins have played physically when the situation has demanded it. They've simply out-skilled and outskated foes other nights. Kovalev looks determined to make his stats match his talent, Robert Lang is off to a hot start, and Rene Corbet seems to be the classic grinder the Penguins have lacked since Bob Errey and Troy Loney left.

Hlinka's coaching has not yet impressed, but that's primarily because he doesn't know the league. He'll get better -- providing, of course, his credibility isn't savaged on a daily basis.

Jagr will get better, too. That's a guarantee. He's the best player in the world. Imagine Jagr and Kovalev healthy and on fire. The mind races.

But for now Jagr stews. He's mad because he's not on top of the scoring race. Because he's 0 for 11 on breakaways. He's probably a little mad that Kovalev has outperformed him recently -- the Jagr-Hlinka episode Wednesday coincided with a Kovalev hat trick, which might not have been a coincidence. But mostly Jagr is mad because he feels better play by him would have won more games.

He's right. But so what? It's a long season. It could be a special season for the Penguins. That's up to Jagr. It's up to how Jagr plays, and how he acts. It's in his hands. That's how Lemieux always wanted it.

That's how Jagr wants it, too.

Like Lemieux before him, Jagr is the straw that stirs the Penguins' drink. But Jagr has to be extra-careful to not stir it bad. Just like Mario was.

Mark Madden's talk show is heard 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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