Monday, November 21, 2011

Jaromir Jagr

When Jaromir Jagr left the New York Rangers to play for Avangard Omsk in Siberia, of all places, the National Hockey League said good-bye to one of the greatest offensive players the league has ever seen.

The five-time NHL scoring champ leaves the league with 646 goals, 953 assists and 1599 points in 1273 games. He leaves the league as the 9th highest scorer in NHL history, and 1st among European players all offensive categories. He holds season records for assists and points by right wingers.

He leaves the league prematurely, giving up a chance to become the NHL's second-leading scorer of all-time, trailing Mark Messier by just 288 points. Such a lofty all time scoring slot is of course is incredible all by itself, especially for a kid from Kladno, Czech Republic who grew up believing he would have to defect from his family and home if he ever wanted to play in the NHL. But even more amazing when you consider he a) did not play in the 1980s like practically every other top scorer, b) he played through two labor stoppages costing him 1 and 1/2 seasons of play and c) that he has now left the NHL early.

Jagr leaves the NHL with a bit of a smeared legacy. He left both Pittsburgh and Washington on bad terms, said to be only interested in money and stardom. His latter years were plagued with the enigma label, or worse, because his brilliance only shone through indifference on occasion.

Yet his list of accomplishments is as long as it as amazing:

* 2 Stanley Cups
* 1 Olympic Gold
* 1 World Championship
* 5 NHL Scoring Championships
* 1 Hart Trophy as NHL MVP (6 total nominations)
* 3 Pearson Awards as Player's choice for MVP
* 8 NHL All Star teams

But why would Jagr choose the Siberian city of Omsk over New York, or any other NHL team? After all, other than far more favorable tax advantages in Russia, the money was essentially the same.

Jagr has a history in Omsk, having played half a season there during the lock-out lost season back in 2005. But also Omsk offered Jagr the stability of a 2 year contract that apparently no NHL team of his liking was willing to give to him.

Why was Jagr searching for only a 2 year contract?

Jagr revealed that his father has requested that he return home to play in his native Kladno, Czech Republic, for the 2010-11 season. That is when Jagr's father plans to open a new arena in Kladno.

"I don't think I would sign longer than two years - just because of my dad," said Jagr, a proud Czech who has always vowed to finish his career in Kladno. "He asked me to come home. He did. In two years. He wants me to come back. He's helping to build a new arena there and he wants me to be there."

Even the chance to surpass Messier as the NHL's greatest scorer not named Wayne Gretzky would not keep J.J. here. Scoring 288 points in 4 seasons is far more realistic than 2, Jagr's apparent deadline for returning to Kladno.

Tanks In The Streets

The Jaromir Jagr story begins in 1968, four years before he was born.

Of course Jagr famously wore jersey number 68 to commemorate a significant conflict in his country's history -- the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Asked about why he chose a number that symbolized his country's struggle for freedom from communist repression, the flamboyant winger often turned sombre.

"It's for my grandfather (a farmer and land owner, also named Jaromir)," revealed Jagr. "He died during that. I wasn't born yet but I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and she told me a lot about it. They took all the property from the rich people and my grandfather was rich. Actually, they took both my grandfathers (to jail). They let them go after the revolution but because my grandfather was so sick in jail and they didn't give him any food, he died after they let him go."

Jaromir Jagr was born fours after the invasion, on February 15, 1972, in Kladno, Czechoslovakia, an ancient town of 80,000 in central Bohemia. His father - also named Jaromir - was a mine administrator who later made a fortune in the hotel business before becoming a hockey administrator in Kladno. But back when Jaromir and his sister Jitka were being raised, times were tough. After all, the family fortune was taken away and the everyday staples of life were scarce.

Many Czechs, already poor, accepted this way of life, but the Jagrs harbored deep resentment against the Communist government. So much so that his heroes were Martina Navratilova, who had defected from Czechoslovakia to the U.S., and United States president Ronald Reagan, the ultimate symbol of those who stood up against the Soviet communists. Jagr even carried a picture of the president around in his wallet.

Jaromir started skating around the age of three. He learned to shoot in his backyard, playing street hockey with his dad. He would practice his now famous laser of a shot by taking 500 shots a day. By age six he was on three different teams, often playing against older kids.

He was definitely emerging as a hockey prodigy, but even more amazing than his skills was his drive and dedication to be the best. As a kid his stickhandling and shooting skills were far beyond average, but he was just an okay skater. When he heard that top players on the national improved their speed by doing squats, he started doing 1,000 a day.

By the age of 12, Jaromir was the best young player in the country. He began his junior hockey career playing against boys five and six years older. In his first year for Kladno’s junior squad, Jaromir scored 24 goals in 34 games. In 1985, he attended the World Championships in Prague as a fan. Reportedly mesmerized by a young Canadian star named Mario Lemieux, he thus began his dream of making it to the NHL one day.

Jaromir played three more seasons of junior hockey, and by the time he 16 he had simply outgrown all that junior hockey had to offer, both figuratively and literally. The tall winger towered over everyone else and outweighed the other boys by 20 or 30 pounds. With his powerful legs he who was far too fast to and with his muscular frame he was impossible to knock off the puck. He skated around defensemen like they practice pylons, just like he would do years later in the NHL.

Jaromir scored 57 times in 35 games in 1987-88, earning a promotion to the Czech national team as its youngest player. Within a season, he was the country’s top star, outperforming the likes of future NHLers Bobby Holik and Robert Reichal.

Ready For The NHL

Then, in 1990, Jaromir and his countrymen squared off against Canada in the World Championships, facing the likes of Paul Coffey and Steve Yzerman—and beat them. Jagr has said it was this moment that he fully realized that he knew he was good enough to play in the NHL.

Jagr could not have picked a better time in history to become eligible for the NHL draft. The fall of communism in Czechoslovakia was in progress in 1990. Though at draft time there was still much political uncertainty, Jagr and other young Czechs would be allowed to leave the country to purse careers in the NHL. Previous generations of hockey stars in Czechoslovakia could only hope for special permission after years of service to the national team, or risk defecting to the west, leaving their families and home behind forever.

Because the political uncertainty scared many NHL teams, Jagr, the hands-down best player in a strong draft, dropped to the 5th overall selection where the Pittsburgh Penguins were more than willing to be patient with the talented superstar. And their gamble proved to be not much of a gamble at all, as political concerns were all for not. Jagr and other young hockey players were given the blessing to pursue careers in the NHL.

The Penguins did their due diligence in developing Jagr. They immediately brought him to Pittsburgh and found a Czech family in the city for him to live with. They set him up with intense English tutoring a good month before his first training camp. And they would acquire long time Czech player Jiri Hrdina to give Jagr a friend and father figure. Together they were known as the Czech Mates.

Jagr, sporting his famous long mullet, joined a Penguins team that was on the cusp of winning the Stanley Cup, if only Mario Lemieux's back injuries held up. The Penguins had assembled a ridiculous supporting cast for Lemieux—Paul Coffey, Bryan Trottier, Joe Mullen, Tom Barrasso, Ron Francis, and Larry Murphy. All but Barrasso would end up in the Hall of Fame. Now the team also boasted talented youngsters named Kevin Stevens and Mark Recchi.

Mario Jr.

And of Jaromir Jagr. Jagr immediately impressed with his size and skill. The only player in the league who had the same combination of size and skill was Jagr's sometimes linemate Lemieux, leading to the popular nickname "Mario, Jr." The nickname was perfect as the two were comparables. Even more amazing was that the letters in Jaromir's name could be rearranged to spell "Mario, Jr."

In style, though, Jagr is something much different from Lemieux, as Bowman points out.

"When Mario gets the puck, he's always thinking, Where can I put it?" says Bowman. "He'll pass the puck off and get himself in a better situation to score than he was in. When Jaromir gets the puck, he's always thinking, Where can I go with it? He reminds me of Maurice Richard in that way. They both played the off-wing, and both had so many moves I don't think either knew which moves they were going to do until they did them. Totally unpredictable."

Interestingly, Scotty Bowman, Jagr's coach for two years, compared him to another NHL superstar from another era.

"He's a different type of player than the league has seen in a long time," says Scotty Bowman , who coached the Penguins last season and is now the team's director of player development and recruitment. "He has a lot of Frank Mahovlich in him. His skating style and strength make him almost impossible to stop one-on-one. A lot of big guys play with their sticks tight to their bodies and don't use that reach to their advantage like Jaromir does."

Lemieux turned out to be the perfect on-ice mentor for Jagr, if only through imitation. Both had hulking bodies but were the most graceful and artistic of players. The competitive Jagr would study Lemieux closely, determined to be just as good. Jagr would become nearly Lemieux's equal once he mastered the ability to use his big frame to his advantage. About the only thing attribute that held him back was Jagr's European-instinct to pass the puck first as opposed to Lemieux's willingness to be greedy and be the hero, scoring the big goal.

Pittsburgh was always Lemieux's team, especially during the back-to-back Stanley Cup championships of 1991 and 1992. Jagr was young back in those days, but over the years Jagr would take over the ill and broken down Lemieux's status as top gun in hockey. The NHL's newest superstar was officially unleashed.

With Lemieux battling the bad back and now stricken with Hodgkin's Disease, a form of cancer, Jagr assumed the lead role magnificently, winning the Art Ross Trophy with a league-best 70 points in 48 games. His 32 goals ranked second in the NHL, and he was a finalist for the Hart Trophy as MVP.The Penguins finished with 29 victories, third most in the NHL. Jaromir continued his dominance in the playoffs, netting 10 goals in 12 playoff games, but Pittsburgh bowed out in the second round. Jagr, playing with defensively conscious center Ron Francis, was willing to be the hero for the first time in his carrer.

1995-96 was a scary season for NHL goaltenders. Lemieux returned, as close to full health as he got. Now Mario and Jaromir would combine forces to produce of the most magical duos in NHL history. Mario scored 69 goals and had 92 assists to win the Art Ross Trophy for the fifth time. Jaromir scored 62 goals and dished out 87 assists to finish second to his teammate in the scoring race with 149 points.

With his great year, Jaromir established himself as one of the great right wings of all-time. No one at the position had scored more points in a season or tallied more assists. He led the league with 403 shots on goal, further proof his mindset had changed to become the best player.

But perhaps the most remarkable feat of Jagr's amazing season was that other than on the power play, he did not often play on Lemieux's wing. Instead he was the shining jewel on Line 1a with Francis and fellow Czech Petr Nedved.

1996-97 was a frastrating season as Jagr missed 19 games with a groin injury. Even more daunting for Penguins fans, Lemieux announced his retirement, putting more pressure on Jagr to be the man, even though opponents could now throw all defensive strategies against just the one line.

Lemieux Leaves, Jagr's Show Now

Despite the nagging groin injury, Jagr responded positively again, scoring 35 goals and a league high 67 assists, earning him his second Art Ross Trophy and the first of four consecutive NHL scoring titles. He was also a finalist for the Hart trophy as MVP, losing to Buffalo's Dominik Hasek.

But 1998 was known for Jagr and Hasek's combining of forces to lead their native Czech Republic to the gold medal in the first ever winter Olympic games where all of the NHL's top players were allowed to participate. Hasek led the way in net while Jagr scored 1 goal and 4 assists. The gold medal victory was made even sweeter for the Czechs as they defeated the Russians. Before returning to their various NHL teams, the Czech team returned to Prague and celebrated with over 100,000 waiting fans at Wenceslas Square.

Upon return to the NHL, Jagr continued to dominate offensively, despite a poor supporting cast, the dead puck era, and a coach, Kevin Constantine, that preached tight defense and dump and chase hockey, something Jagr never warmed to either publicly or privately. Despite a lucrative 6 year contract, rumblings of Jagr's unhappiness were appearing for the first time.

Yet in 1998-99 he turned in one of the best seasons in recent memory, skating off with the Hart Trophy as league MVP, his only such title though he was finalist 5 other times in his career.. Jaromir won the scoring title by 20 points, with 44 goals and 83 assists. He also captured the Lester B Pearson Award, the MVP as chosen by his fellow players.

Jaromir repeated as NHL scoring champ, despite missing a quarter of the season to nagging leg and back injuries. He tallied 42 goals and 54 assists for 96 points in a league plagued by the neutral zone traps and oversized goalie equipment. Had the Penguins provided him with a couple of top-flight linemates, and had he remained healthy, Jaromir could have legitimately outscored every other NHL player by 30 or 40 points. He was now that good.

Jaromir won his fourth straight scoring title in 2000-01, with 52 goals and a league-best 69 assists for 121 points. He started strong and finished even stronger, earning NHL Player of the Month honors in both November and March. He scored his 400th goal and 1,000th point during the campaign, and also played in his 800th NHL game. Although the Penguins finished third in the division, they reached the conference finals for the first time since 1996, falling to the Devils in their quest for a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Ultimately that was as much playoff success Jagr would ever achieve in the post-Lemieux era, forever seperating Lemieux from Jagr amongst the all time greats.

Off To Washington and New York

Jagr would leave Pittsburgh under less than great terms. Surprisingly, he struggled under and clashing with Ivan Hlinka, the first Czech coach in NHL history. Some Pens fans even turned on Jagr, labelling him as disinterested. Jagr wanted out, and was traded to Washington in 2001 for essentially nothing. The Capitals would sign Jagr to a whopping 7 year, $77M deal.

But Jagr never got untracked in Washington, and the numbers of cynics only grew larger. He was brought in as the superstar who was supposed to return a strong Caps to the Stanley Cup finals. Under the great pressure of the contract and the expectations, Jagr stuggled and ultimately floundered. His stay in Washington was nothing short of disastrous.

After 2 and 1/2 seasons, the Capitals moved Jagr to the New York Rangers, but they had to agree to pay half of his salary to start over. Jagr was able to find his game in New York, turning in an impressive 54 goal, 123 point season in 2005-06, earning another Pearson trophy. More importantly, he was able to, unlike so many other faded stars who found their way to Broadway late in their careers, re-establish himself as one of the game's greatest players, shaking off many of the labels of a greedy, disengaged enigma that hounded him over the previous few years.

The kid from Kladno found the love of the game again in New York, and his smile. The NHL found their love for J.J. again, too. In a New York minute.

Though he leaves under strange circumstances, NHL fans over the past 18 years have mostly loved him too.

He truly is one of the NHL's greatest players in league history. In 1998 a panel of experts organized by The Hockey News included Jaromir Jagr at #37 on the definitive list of the greatest players of all time. That was 11 years ago, just as his career was kicking into high gear. Now, with several more significant seasons and many longevity feats to add to his resume, he would surely rank in the top 20.


Unknown said...

Great Article... He is one of the best all time players in history...

Bruce said...

I forget which season it was, but Jagr missed a whole bunch of games. And when he came back, he was still leading the scoring race. That line of Lemieux, Jagr and Francis gets my vote as the most potent offensive trio in NHL history. Jagr was absolute magic in his prime. His record proves it.

Unknown said...

i was at the game, front row for #2 it was one of the coolest goals i'd ever seen....

DHFF said...

One of the best articles about J.J. I have ever read! Great job!

Tomáš said...

Thanks for this article, it's great! Hi from Czech Republic

Anonymous said...

jsi bourák, Jardo

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