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A Lemieux scolding could kick-start Jagr

Friday, December 01, 2000

Mario Lemieux tried talking rationally with Jaromir Jagr. He listened to him whine like a child. He commiserated with his anguish over failing to dominate hockey games the way he always had. He even went public and defended his ridiculous, pouty behavior.

"He's a great team player," Lemieux said. "He's just frustrated with his game."

It didn't work.

Jagr still is acting like a big baby.

He has left Lemieux with no choice. It's time for Lemieux to show a little tough love to his sulking superstar, maybe get in his face a little, certainly offer a strong suggestion to him.

Hey, Yags, enough already. You're the captain of our team and you're letting the guys down. You're embarrassing yourself, me and the entire organization by acting like this. Do us both a favor and get your head out of your you-know-what!

This has nothing to do with Jagr's scoring slump. So what if he hasn't scored a point in four Penguins games or a goal in six? If he isn't among the NHL's scoring leaders at this early point of the season? Even the greatest player in the world will slump occasionally. Lemieux knows that.

What's troubling is Jagr's reaction.

One of Bill Cowher's favorite quotes is this: "Adversity doesn't build character. It reveals it."

At this point, you have to think Jagr has very little.

For weeks, he has felt sorry for himself, often going through the motions on the ice. During a nationally televised game against the Philadelphia Flyers Nov. 8, he had nasty words with Ivan Hlinka, showing him up and making him look bad. Even more alarming were his surreal comments after the Penguins' 3-1 loss in Boston Tuesday night.

"I just don't feel comfortable here right now."

Jagr has a lot to be unhappy about, doesn't he? He makes $10 million a year. He's the most beloved sports star in the city. Hlinka -- a Czech coach -- was brought in largely to please him. He is allowed to do whatever he wants on the ice and in the locker room ...

Jagr wanted to change the top two lines' forechecking system and went behind Hlinka's back to do it? Hlinka went along with it.

Jagr wants to play with lesser players, who always look to pass him the puck, rather than players who might help his line score more goals? Hlinka puts him with Jan Hrdina and Kip Miller.

Yeah, Jagr has it rough.

Even his team is playing well, fighting for first place in the Atlantic Division despite a training camp holdout by goaltender Jean-Sebastien Aubin, a season-opening trip to Japan and long-term injuries to top defensemen Bob Boughner and Janne Laukkanen.

You would think Jagr would be thrilled.

"Maybe I'm going to think about retirement pretty soon."

There are 10 million reasons why that remark is too ludicrous to even address.

"I feel like I'm dying alive."

Maybe Jagr needs more than just a chat with Lemieux. Maybe he needs therapy.

But the guess here is Lemieux could do more for Jagr than any shrink. He's the one person Jagr respects more than any other, the one he most wants to please, the one he has always wanted to please since he broke in as a rookie 10 years ago. If he can't get things right in Jagr's head, no one can.

Lemieux would have to say only one thing.

Yags, you're letting me down.

It's true, isn't it?

Lemieux could have traded Jagr when he took over the Penguins last year. That would have been the easy thing to do for an owner bringing a team out of bankruptcy. It wouldn't have been the first time a troubled team couldn't afford to keep its big-money player. Remember the Edmonton Oilers and Wayne Gretzky?

But Lemieux never gave that a thought and kept Jagr even if it meant paying him one-third of the team's payroll. He wasn't interested in having three pretty good $3 million-a-year players and a spare million in the bank instead of Jagr. He wanted the best player in the world. He has that much faith in Jagr.

And now Jagr is pulling this garbage?

Talking about retiring?

About dying alive?

"I think he's going to come out of it real soon," General Manager Craig Patrick said yesterday.

Patrick had a long, private talk with Jagr Saturday night after the Penguins' tie with the Los Angeles Kings.

"I've talked to him a lot. He expects so much from himself, and it's just not happening for him right now. He feels like he's letting his teammates down. That's what's bothering him more than anything else.

"I know he's going to come out of it. I just tried to stay positive with him, tried to encourage him."

That's the problem.

Everyone has smooched Jagr's behind. Hlinka. Patrick. Even Lemieux.

It's time someone gave it a kick. Hlinka can't do it. Patrick can't.

Only Lemieux can.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com

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