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Madden: Booing Barrasso, Jagr wrong move

Saturday, December 15, 2001

Tom Barrasso and Jaromir Jagr return to Mellon Arena soon. Barrasso's Carolina Hurricanes visit Pittsburgh tomorrow. Jagr's Washington Capitals arrive Friday.

I'm sure, being Pittsburghers, you'll do what comes naturally. You'll boo Barrasso and Jagr for having the temerity to leave this paradise. You'll boo Barrasso and Jagr just like you boo Barry Bonds when he plays against the Pirates.

And it will be wrong.

If the media rises as one in the press box and extends its collective middle finger to Barrasso, that will be acceptable. Barrasso didn't treat the fans like crap. He treated the media like crap. Barrasso didn't accidentally-on-purpose swing the butt end of his stick at your head in the runway leading from the ice to the locker room. Barrasso did that to me. (He missed, by the way).

If some of Barrasso's ex-teammates hate him, that's understandable. If you weren't a fellow star, his dressing room demeanor was aloof, if not downright nasty. At best, he ignored his goaltending partner. At worst, he terrorized him. Ask Jean-Sebastien Aubin, whom Barrasso once berated for not playing hurt. Kind of ironic, since Aubin was legitimately injured and since Barrasso occasionally wasn't.

But Barrasso did nothing to make you hate him. On the contrary. He is the best goalie in the history of the Penguins' franchise, and history will remember him as one of the top netminders ever. He is a lock to make the Hockey Hall of Fame and, after a year off, Barrasso is having a renaissance with Carolina.

Before you boo Barrasso, gaze at the Mellon Arena roof and check out the Stanley Cup banners hanging there. They wouldn't be there if it weren't for him. Barrasso probably deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP in 1992, when he helped the Penguins survive injuries to Mario Lemieux and Joey Mullen. But the award went to Lemieux, who got 34 points in the 15 games he played.

Sure, Barrasso allowed a soft overtime goal to the New York Islanders' David Volek in 1993, ending the Penguins' mini-dynasty. OK, so he let Florida's Tom Fitzgerald score from outside the blue line as the Penguins lost in the 1996 semis. No matter. Barrasso's highlights far outshine his lowlights.

As for Jagr, he had one bad year in Pittsburgh, emotionally speaking. It was last season, and he still managed to win the NHL scoring title.

Jagr will never be remembered as anything better than the second-best player in Penguins history, but that's not bad. Jagr is still in his prime and should wind up very high among the NHL's all-time leading scorers. He scored huge goals during the Penguins' two Stanley Cup runs. Who will ever forget Jagr's game-tying skate across the slot in Game 1 of the '92 finals against Chicago?

I will always have one vivid memory of Jagr: No. 68 playing on one leg in Game 6 of the Penguins' first-round playoff series vs. New Jersey in 1999. Jagr defied a severe groin injury to score the tying goal in the game's waning seconds, then netted the winner in overtime. That effort, which took place at Mellon Arena, should make Jagr immune from being booed in Pittsburgh. That was superhuman.

Jagr was very unhappy toward the end of last season, and it showed. But, as with Barrasso, the good far outweighs the bad. Like Barrasso, Jagr is a definite Hall-of-Famer.

Unlike Barrasso, Jagr was a lot of fun to work with. Eccentric, yes. Difficult, occassionally. But mean-spirited? Absolutely not. With few exceptions, Jagr was extremely accessible. He said what he meant, and he meant what he said. He was often insightful and extremely quotable.

Jagr alienated some teammates over the years. He had high expectations of those who skated with him, and he wasn't afraid to verbalize or criticize. If Jagr often was spoiled and petulant, it's only because the Penguins allowed it. But Jagr did not leave the Penguins as a hated figure within the locker room.

Nor did he leave the Penguins over money. That would have become an issue eventually, because the Penguins couldn't afford the seven-year, $77-million contract the Capitals gave him. But Jagr basically left to get a change of scenery. As for Barrasso, he left because the Penguins didn't want him anymore.

So when Jagr skates onto the Mellon Arena ice in an opposing uniform for the first time -- and when Barrasso does so for the first time since 1987 -- you should cheer. Heck, you should give Jagr and Barrasso standing ovations. Especially Jagr. A lot of athletes say they play for the fans, but he means it. Jeers here would roll off Barrasso's back and feed his martyr complex. But being booed in Pittsburgh would cut Jagr deeply.

Jagr and Barrasso are both white, so they have a better chance to get cheered here. How else can Pittsburgh's extended affection for a bum like Sid Bream be explained? Bream was cheered when he returned to play against the Pirates, while all-time great Bonds gets booed.

Jagr was the Penguins' equivalent of Bonds. So was Barrasso. Better, even, because both excelled in the playoffs. It would be a crime if they were booed.

So don't boo them.

Mark Madden's talk show is heard 3-7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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