It was breakup day for the Pittsburgh Penguins on the heels of the 2012-13 season in what then was called Consol Energy Center. One of the team’s popular players was gabbing informally with a few reporters when the topic for some reason turned to Jaromir Jagr.
“Yeah, he’s … different,” the Penguins player said as the small group eyed Jagr’s likeness on the ring of honor that circles the locker room above the stalls.
Yes. Jagr is a different type of dude. However, one of the best players in Penguins and NHL history deserves to be put back on the Penguins’ ring of honor. It’s time.
Jagr’s likeness was removed from the ring of honor sometime in the months between that 2013 breakup day and the start of the next season, replaced by Mark Recchi. The Penguins never fully addressed the change, but word was it was considered awkward to have Jagr’s face looking out at the team when, on some nights, he was an opposing player.
That makes sense. Jagr had left the NHL and was playing for Omsk in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia when the facility, now called PPG Paints Arena, opened and the ring of honor was originally installed, with black-and-white images of iconic franchise players, coaches and executives circling the locker room.
By 2013-14 he had been back in the NHL a couple seasons, while Recchi (now a Penguins assistant coach) had retired. It made for a smooth transition on the ring of honor.
It should be noted that Jagr’s likeness was not removed from other areas of the arena.
Jagr, 47, is still playing, but not in the NHL. He’s with his hometown Kladno in the second-tier Czech League.
You might have seen some highlights, including this recent throwback goal and a four-goal game:
That’s not to say Jagr will be back playing in the NHL. He won’t. That opportunity dried up for him after he played 1,733 games with nine teams.
There has been discussion of the Penguins retiring his No. 68 and raising Jagr’s jersey to the arena rafters, and man, that has to happen. It’s a matter of when.
He’ll easily be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame if he ever retires.
The Penguins drafted Jagr fifth overall in 1990, a risk by then-general manager Craig Patrick because it wasn’t a sure thing that Jagr would be able to leave the Czech Republic for Pittsburgh.
He arrived. And then some.
Jagr ranks second all-time in the NHL in points, with 1,921, third in games played, third in goals with 766, fifth in assists with 1,155. In the playoffs, he had 78 goals, 201 points in 208 games and helped the Penguins win their first two Stanley Cups in 1991 as a rookie and 1992. And that’s despite spending those three seasons in Russia.
He wasn’t Mario Lemieux, but Jagr was a wonderful complement to the Hall of Fame center and current Penguins co-owner.
During those mullet years, Jagr was as popular as he was productive. Shy and with limited English, he got by a lot with a mile-wide smile and his signature salute as a goal celly.
Over time while he was with the Penguins, he was discovered to be maniacal about his workouts. Then there were the reports of Jagr having the glove box of his muscle/sports car stuffed with speeding tickets.
Eventually, he rightfully gained a reputation for being sullen and standoffish at times, and those times didn’t necessarily correspond to how he or the team were doing. Later it was posited that his mood was influenced by how he did with sports betting, especially on football, and apparently he wasn’t so good at that.
But the moodiness – and the Penguins’ inability to win another Cup in the 1990s – are not what soured the relationship between Jagr and the city.
Rather, it was a widely and wildly misconstrued comment he made, along with his trade to Washington in a one-sided deal for the Capitals after the 2000-01 season.
The trade was an obvious salary dump by a club that was struggling financially, but it was as shocking to send off such an accomplished player as it would be now if the Penguins should end up trading Evgeni Malkin.
But Malkin has not issued a perceived slight toward Pittsburgh. The “dying alive” narrative and subsequent booing of Jagr every time he touched the puck as a visiting player for years afterward? Shame on all of you – respected reporters included – who continue to misinterpret or misrepresent that. It was never aimed at the team, the city or the fans.
Jagr said, “I feel like I’m dying alive,” to describe his frustration over a prolonged slump during what would be his final season with the Penguins. That has been confirmed repeatedly and publicly by the reporter who asked the question. It was not a plea to get out of town.
Jagr is moody. He is “different.” But he has always adored Lemieux and had no ill feelings toward the city or the fans during his time in Pittsburgh.
And he was a great player for the Penguins.
It’s time for the Penguins to reinstate him in the ring of honor in the locker room. The ring is pretty full and might have to be redone with a new configuration to include Jagr. The spot where Jagr was and Recchi is looks out from above the stretch of stalls where the defensemen sit.
Jagr deserves to be shoehorned in somewhere.