Good afternoon, hockey fans.
There are so many serious things taking place in hockey right now, namely the Brooks Orpik/Shawn Thornton situation, that I feel like we need a break.
Enter Jaromir Jagr.
I never had the pleasure of covering Jagr when he wore the Pittsburgh Penguins sweater. That was before my time.
No, I only covered Jagr very briefly when he was a Ranger, and in later years, a Flyer, Star and Devil. I experienced #Jagrwatch during many sleepless night and, along the way, had the pleasure of meeting many of you on one legendary night at Pittsburgh International Airport.
Jagr has a way of captivating us, doesn’t he?
He is so many things to so many people.
Some of you will boo him tonight because he asked the Penguins to trade him in 2001, because he turned his back on a perceived agreement with his “hero,” Mario Lemieux, and because he took more money to play in someplace other than Pittsburgh. Someplace turned out to be Philadelphia, which made things even worse.
Others will always love him because, from 1997-2000, he was unquestionably the best player in hockey. Many will point to his iconic performance in Game 2 if the first round of the 1999 playoffs against the Devils as the reason they love Jagr, because his performance that day may have saved the franchise.
Me? Well, I’ve dealt with Jagr many times now, and I’ve grown a liking for the man. He’s funny, he’s weird, and beyond everything else, he’s entertaining.
He’s a real rock star, and hockey doesn’t really have them anymore. Sure, Crosby, Ovechkin and Malkin are true superstars, future Hall of Famers.
But Jagr is a little different because he takes us back to a different time.
Many in my generation grew up watching Jagr and those incredible Penguins of the 1990s. This, I suppose, is why I favor Jagr in so many ways despite some obvious flaws.
He’s the bridge to those teams, to when hockey was so different.
Jagr, in an unusual display of nostalgia, brought up Mario Lemieux, Kevin Stevens, Rich Tocchet, Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson today. He spoke passionately about those players, and noted that they worked harder than people realized.
“Sure, we had talent,” Jagr said. “But we worked so hard all the time. People don’t talk about that.”
Jagr even joked that Lemieux, never known for his wonderful practice habits, never had to work hard in practice, “because he was playing 30 minutes a night in games.”
When you’re around Jagr, you observe many things. He really is hockey’s last rock star, a man whose career spans so many eras of NHL hockey. His teammates are intimidated, in awe and in love with him all at the same time.
And Jagr still loves Pittsburgh. Trust me on that. It’s clear every time he is here. When he sees Paul Steigerwald, the Root Sports broadcaster, he always perks up and makes a few jokes. All of those Pittsburgh memories clearly come rushing back to Jagr during these moments.
He spoke so lovingly of previous generations of hockey, that I felt compelled to ask him if playing for those free-wheeling Penguins teams of the 1990s represented the happiest time of his career.
Jagr didn’t answer with a yes or a no.
But he answered the question in his own special way.
“When I was young,” he said, “I was only a third or fourth line guy. And Bryan Trottier was my center. So what does that tell you? There was so much talent.”
In Jagr, there still is talent. He won’t be around forever, but insists he isn’t done playing hockey.
Jagr isn’t done being interesting, either.