Jaromir Jagr can be moody. Oh, yeah, he can really be moody. At times during his Penguins tenure, he drove reporters nuts. Heck, he sometimes drove his teammates nuts.
But before the relationship with Pittsburgh fell apart, you cheered him. You adored his big grin and his bigger hair. And rightly so. Jagr was a phenomenal talent, a key part of two 1990s Stanley Cup teams full of future Hall of Famers.
Now that his NHL career seems to have finally ended at age 45 – 45! — after he cleared waivers Monday and was loaned by Calgary to his hometown team in Kladno, Czech Republic (a team he owns), it’s a prime time for a retrospective on his time in Pittsburgh.
And, maybe even more than that, it’s time for a plea to let go of the hard feelings. It’s possible things started to soften last spring when he was here with the Florida Panthers. There was a warm ovation and a warm gesture from Jagr following a tribute video feting him for being named one of the top 100 players of all time.
But it is worth a deeper dig.
A Little History Lesson
Go back to his early days with the Penguins. He broke into the league as a teenager in 1990, his love of hockey one of the few things that got him through immense culture shock and homesickness.
He won over the town with his skill, his salute as a goal celebration, his love of blue jeans, the way he said he was learning English by watching “Married … With Children.” We all smiled and shook our heads at stories of a glove box filled with speeding tickets in his Dodge Viper.
We didn’t really understand much about his upbringing. It was pretty stark, post-Communism stark.
That realization sunk in for me during a chance encounter away from the rink just after the Penguins were shockingly ousted by the Islanders in the 1993 playoffs. I’ve written about this once before, but now it bears repeating.
I was with another reporter when we ran into Jagr, teammate Martin Straka and Straka’s brother at Kennywood. We all stopped to chat. As it happens, we were in front of the Log Jammer (RIP). Young women kept approaching him for autographs and to beg him to go on the water flume ride with them. He politely but firmly declined.
When we asked him why he wouldn’t go on the ride, Jagr eyed the final plunge – pretty mild, really – with total terror. They didn’t have amusement parks where he grew up. They didn’t have much of anything except hockey.
Don’t Let The Door Hit You…
Those mullet years in Pittsburgh were good to Jagr, but things deteriorated along with the team’s performance and financial standing. Then it ended in anger and misunderstanding.
When the Pirates sell-off, rather than re-sign, top assets such as Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, the venom is aimed squarely at the club, the ownership. When the Penguins traded Jagr to Washington in 2001 in what was an obvious salary dump by a franchise in financial straits, the player took the brunt of the ill will.
Josh Harrison saw the direction the Pirates were taking this offseason, he said publicly he was mulling asking to be traded. Fans nodded in understanding. When Jagr asked for a trade during tough Penguins times, he was vilified.
Please don’t go down the “dying alive” route – the writer who did the interview and first reported the quote has tried in vain to convey that it has been taken out of context for years. It’s become an urban myth, just like the one where people believe Sidney Crosby shot pucks at his mom’s dryer (he never did).
The Jagr urban myth has legs as sturdy as Jagr’s. It’s partly what led to Jagr getting “the treatment” for years, booed every time he touched the puck as an opposing player in Pittsburgh.
Please, let it now be time to appreciate Jagr in Pittsburgh. Let that appreciation marinate between now and a time that, surely, the Penguins will invite the sure Hall of Famer back for a blowout tribute, if not a retirement of No. 68.
Yes, he became a mercenary (Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Dallas Stars, Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils, Florida Panthers, and finally the Calgary Flames). He has a few character quirks. Yes, he reached a point where he was plagued by groin pulls and such. But the right winger played so well and so long, he was a once-in-two-generations talent.
Besides the two Stanley Cups, he won five league scoring titles and one Hart Trophy. He ranks third all time in the NHL with 1,733 games played. He scored 766 goals. His 1,921 points rank second only to Wayne Gretzky.
Jagr loves hockey. There was a time he loved Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh loved him. Isn’t that worth something?