HE PLAYED THE entire playoff stretch with two severely separated shoulders, played a stretch earlier in the season with a shoulder injury, too. Jason Smith also played amid boos, maybe the first he has heard in a stellar hockey

career, and with bloggers questioning everything from his dedication to his toughness.

He accepted it all. He never complained, lashed out or asked out. "He's a tough man," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said late Sunday in Pittsburgh, emotion cracking his voice and squeezing his watery eyes. "He's a tough, tough man."

Yesterday, Holmgren confirmed what many following this team during the postseason had suspected, that Smith, the Flyers' captain, had suffered a separation of an already-ailing shoulder in one period against the New Jersey Devils on April 4, then separated the other shoulder the following period. It forced him to miss the final game of the regular season and the week of practice leading into the playoffs, forced him to alter his physical style, and forced him to receive repeated injections to numb excruciating pain.

He did not miss a playoff game, his minutes vacillating wildly as the injuries around him piled up. "I don't know how he did it," Holmgren said. "Jason Smith and Derian Hatcher brought toughness to a new level, in my mind. Neither of them should have been playing."

Hatcher had fluids drained from his ailing knee daily. He has another season in his contract. Smith, acquired last summer in a trade with Edmonton, does not. Yesterday, Holmgren confirmed what many also suspected, that Smith's grittiness in this postseason did not guarantee him an offer to remain as this team's captain next season.

"I'd be foolish not to consider it," Holmgren said. "Those are the hard decisions that need to be made. I'd love to sit here and say that everybody will be back. But the economics of the game probably aren't going to allow that."

On his way out the door Sunday, Smith flashed that gap-toothed grin of his when asked to detail the extent of his injuries. He also shrugged when asked if he thought he would be back.

"I'm fine," he said. "No excuses."

No surprise there. He didn't give them all season, accepted blame readily when his play did not measure to his and your standards. It reminded you of what the matured Allen Iverson said upon his return in March, when someone asked if the assertion that the Sixers were better off in the long run without him was fair.

"Yeah," he said. "I was there to accept all the praise when they gave it to me, and I accept the criticism. I mean, I did a lot of things right when I was a Sixer, but I did a lot of things wrong. I made a lot of mistakes."

It also reminded you of something Ryan Howard said the other day, when he was asked about the boos he received during a 2-month slump that now appears over.

"I think it bothers you a little bit," he told reporters. "First off, I think the competitive nature in yourself, you want to go out there and get the job done. It definitely doesn't help when the fans kind of get on you. But at the same time, that's what happens when you sign the permission slip to play in Philly."

Howard should be careful here. He, too, accepted all the praise when they gave it to him, became one of baseball's most marketable stars. That permission slip, worth $10 million this season, would have been co-signed by 99.9 percent of the ticket-buying population if it really existed back in February. Those booing fans were his lawyers for such a deal, imploring and pressuring the Phillies to lock him up long-term and avoid arbitration.

That he was booed while batting a buck and change is not exclusive to Philadelphia. Ask Carlos Delgado, or Alex Rodriguez.

If he really wanted to hear boos, he should have been at a few of those Flyers games when Smith played as well as he can and as hard as he can with his two shoulders hanging off. Can you imagine an Eagles star, with free agency looming and an unlikelihood of being re-signed, playing as hurt as Smith was this postseason? An NBA star? A baseball star?

"I'm not sure I've seen anything like that," Holmgren said. "I've been around the NHL for a long time now. I've never witnessed anything like what those two guys went through. They're ultimate pros. And what they bring to a team - you can't define it."

Early this postseason, while talking to me about professionalism, Mike Richards continually referenced Smith. I thought he was being deferential then, even over the top with it - until I saw Holmgren's eyes well up late Sunday afternoon.

Smith earned just under $2 million this season and, nearing age 35, might never get that kind of money again. What he should get, albeit belatedly, is your undying respect for years to come regardless of whose sweater he wears next season.

Because that, too, is what happens when you sign the permission slip to play in Philly. *

Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com.

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