Jaromir Jagr was the best player in the world for nearly a decade. He electrified fans and carried the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise after their other stars were gone. In the two generations since the Penguins became a premier organization worthy of the Stanley Cup, Jagr remains a cornerstone and symbol of unparalleled world-class talent who have worn the Pittsburgh sweater.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are widely considered to be one of the premier franchises in the NHL — a club that has won five Stanley Cups. The Penguins are considered to be a perennial contender, spend to the salary cap ceiling, boast stellar TV ratings, often draw an impressive number of fans on the road, and there has been a parade of Hall of Fame and star players. It wasn’t always that way. There were humble beginnings as an expansion franchise more than 50 years ago under the direction of original general manager Jack Riley. He was sharp but realistic and remained in the team “family” into his 90s. Through the years, several key individuals have been responsible for the Penguins’ rise. This is a look at some of those individuals.
(This feature was originally published on August 27, 2018)
Also Read Part 1: The Men Who Built the Penguins: Eddie Johnston
Long before the Penguins fan base took Phil Kessel to their breast, Jagr was a fan darling no matter the situation. Jagr’s toothy grin, Pittsburghesque mullet style hair, and his desire to learn English after arriving from Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) endeared him to Pittsburgh fans. Jagr’s local hangouts became hotspots, and legends grew of his parkway speeding tickets. Grocery chain Giant Eagle even introduced Jagr Peanut Butter.
As a rookie, he was a fan favorite even before he, his tree-trunk legs and wizardly stick handling helped the Penguins win their first Stanley Cup in 1991.
The Beginning of Jaromir Jagr
Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick selected Jagr fifth overall in 1990. Jagr was one of the best players available behind top overall pick Owen Nolan, but teams believed they could not get Jagr out of Czechoslovakia. Through the years, the tales have changed. Back then, the public story was that teams didn’t’ feel they could get Jagr out of his military commitments Czechoslovakia, two years before the “Velvet Divorce,” which split the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The Globe and Mail newspaper wrote, “[Jagr] has been touted as the most talented player available. But the standard doubts about Eastern European players move him down in the draft.”
Canucks General Manager Brian Burke told local sportswriters the Canucks would select Jagr with the second overall pick, but eventually, they settled on fellow Czech Petr Nedved.
Only recently, Jagr and Patrick admitted Jagr might have rigged the process.
Craig Patrick admits that Jagr told the top four teams drafting in 90 he wouldn’t come to NHL. Told Pens he wanted to play with Mario.
— Josh Yohe (@JoshYohe_PGH) August 29, 2016
Jagr’s trickery worked. He played 11 years in Pittsburgh, 806 games, and scored 1079 points, including 439 goals. Jagr was a first-team All-Star six teams, won five Art Ross trophies including four straight from 1998-2001, five Hart trophy nominations, and one Hart trophy win.
And two Stanley Cups.
In the early 1990’s, Pittsburgh Magazine realized Jagr’s name was an anagram for Mario Jr. In the late 1990’s, he no longer needed the “Jr.” Jagr earned a place among the Penguins builders by carrying the franchise after Mario Lemieux’s first retirement in 1997. He became not a second-rate fill-in, but a dominant force who shouldered the legacy with dramatic flair.
Jagr already built a resume of dramatic goals, including his ridiculous overtime winner against the New Jersey Devils, in 1991.
And this gem in 1992, which is one of the prettiest goals of all-time.
In 1999, with the franchise again teetering on bankruptcy and its existence uncertain, Jagr played his greatest two games. Imagine, no more Pittsburgh Penguins. It was a real possibility, and that cloud hung over the Penguins. Jagr was dealing with a nasty groin injury, which forced him to miss four of the first five games of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against New Jersey. He returned for Game 6 and essentially played on one leg.
One leg. He played 29 minutes and dominated. It remains one of the most astounding and bravest performances in Pittsburgh sports history.
The Penguins won Game 7, too. The additional millions in revenue from an extra playoff series helped save the Penguins. Mario Lemieux’s plan to rescue the team from Bankruptcy proceedings worked. And the rest is a rocky history which culminated in the return of Lemieux, the arrival of Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, and three more Stanley Cups.
Credit Jaromir Jagr.
Jagr didn’t want to leave Pittsburgh, but finances and a souring situation forced his departure in 2001. He told the Toronto Sun, Patrick was “like a father,” but Jagr saw the Penguins could not afford him and other good players. “If I didn’t tell him I wanted to be traded … then he wouldn’t have traded me,” Jagr said to the paper in 2017.
Patrick traded Jagr to Washington for three minor leaguers and a big cash payout.
Jagr was vilified for taking one for the team. As part of the Jagr trade, the Penguins received a healthy amount of cash, which sustained them while they fought for a new arena. Even in Jagr’s departure, he perpetuated the franchise though fans were not understanding. In Pittsburgh, fans booed Jagr every time he touched the puck, for years.
He was a Pittsburgh boy by way of Czechoslovakia. He was a popular man about town and enjoyed the Penguins’ style and freedoms in what used to be known as the “country club”.
In Washington, he never quite fit in with the Capitals grinding team and head coach Ron Wilson. Players in Washington didn’t feel Jagr wanted to be there. And, in reality, he probably didn’t. He lasted just two seasons in Washington before being traded to the Rangers.
Jagr played four more years for the Rangers before bolting back to the KHL for three seasons.
After a few seasons in Russia, and pushing 40-years-old, most players would have retired. Not Jagr. He returned to the NHL in 2011-12 with the Philadelphia Flyers. Then split 2012-13 with the KHL and the Dallas Stars.
Jagr rolled through Philadelphia, Dallas, Boston, New Jersey, Florida, and finally Calgary before unofficially retiring from the NHL (in 2018), finally, at 46-years-old. Jagr finished his NHL career with 1921 points (766g, 1155a), and passed Mark Messier as the second all-time leading scorer. He trails only Wayne Gretzky (2857 points).
And somewhere along the line, Pittsburgh fans forgave him for requesting the trade. The boos which once rained down when he touched the puck gave way to rampant hope and speculation he would finish his career in Pittsburgh. #Jagrwatch is still used on Twitter to campaign for Jagr’s return.
Jagr’s legacy grows with each passing year. Perhaps soon, his name and number should hang from the rafters as one of the men who built the Pittsburgh Penguins.