Jagr was once NHL’s No. 1 vil­lain

Cape Breton Post - - SPORTS - BY JONAS SIEGEL THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Long be­fore he be­came a charm­ing cult hero, Jaromir Jagr was the NHL’s No. 1 vil­lain.

He was prob­a­bly the best player in the world at that point in 2001 — the first since Wayne Gret­zky to lead the league in scor­ing for four years straight — but also ap­peared to turn his back on the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins. What fol­lowed were the lost years of a Hall of Fame ca­reer, a pe­riod of frus­tra­tion, dis­ap­point­ment, big money and tur­moil with the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals.

“I guar­an­tee if you talk to Jaromir he would ad­mit that was kind of a rough time in his life, a rough time in his ca­reer,” said Tim Hunter, a for­mer as­sis­tant coach with the Cap­i­tals.

Look­ing back now as he cel­e­brates his 45th birth­day, Jagr feels the need to set the record straight on at least one thing: he never wanted to leave Pitts­burgh.

He con­cluded, though, that the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s best chance for suc­cess amid wor­ry­ing fi­nan­cial duress was trad­ing him and his big con­tract that sum­mer. He also knew that with su­per­star Mario Lemieux stick­ing around, Mel­lon Arena would be full ev­ery night and thought it im­por­tant that the club find a way to hold onto the tal­ented play­ers like Robert Lang, Martin Straka and Alexei Ko­valev.

That wouldn’t hap­pen if he re­mained. Nor would a trade hap­pen un­less he asked Craig Pa­trick, the club’s gen­eral man­ager and some­one Jagr said, “was like a fa­ther to me”.

“If I didn’t tell him I wanted to be traded ... then he wouldn’t have traded me,” re­called Jagr, who turns 45 Wed­nes­day. “It was for the team. Ob­vi­ously it was the wrong thing — be­cause ev­ery­body thinks I wanted to leave.”

At the time Jagr, now a mem­ber of the Florida Pan­thers, said he was stung by ques­tions about “heart” fol­low­ing a poor play­off run that spring. He voiced his pref­er­ence for a fresh start with the New York Rangers.

That didn’t stop Ted Leon­sis from in­sist­ing that his team’s gen­eral man­ager Ge­orge McPhee pur­sue a deal. Less than two years into his term as the Cap­i­tals owner, Leon­sis saw in Jagr a splash who could re-in­vig­o­rate the sleepy Wash­ing­ton sports scene. Michael Jor­dan would come out of re­tire­ment a few months later to join the NBA’s Wizards.

De­spite the in­sis­tence of his owner, McPhee thought the Cap­i­tals odds of land­ing Jagr were low. The late June draft in Florida passed with no chat­ter be­tween his team and the Pen­guins, but a few days af­ter that he heard from Pa­trick and the two sides agreed to a deal which sent spare parts to Pitts­burgh for the 1999 Hart Tro­phy win­ner.

A few months later the Cap­i­tals locked Jagr into what was then the big­gest con­tract in NHL his­tory: seven years and US$77 mil­lion.

The Czech star picked up two points in his first game with the Caps, a 6-1 win over New Jer­sey, but it was ev­i­dent early that the flashy new ad­di­tion might be a dif­fi­cult sell for head coach Ron Wil­son’s team-first con­cept. Hunter, who’s now the head coach of the WHL’s Moose Jaw War­riors, thought Jagr was “kind of on his own pro­gram” and strug­gled to fit in with the group.

His gi­gan­tic new con­tract was prov­ing a dis­trac­tion with team­mates too.

Jagr, who de­clined a phone in­ter­view re­quest for this story but agreed to an­swer email ques­tions sub­mit­ted by The Cana­dian Press, said that while Leon­sis clearly wanted him in D.C., Wil­son did not.

Peter Bon­dra roomed with Jagr in those days and be­lieved him to be a qual­ity team­mate who only wanted what was best for the Caps. Still, he sus­pected Jagr wasn’t keen on com­ing to Wash­ing­ton at first and as a long-time su­per­star, tended to have his own ideas on things like the power play.

McPhee thought Jagr dis­rupted the har­mony of a man ad­van­tage that pre­vi­ously cen­tered it­self around the tremen­dous pass­ing skills of Adam Oates and pow­er­ful shots of Bon­dra and de­fence­man Sergei Gon­char.

The Wash­ing­ton power play re­mained elite, but the club got worse, miss­ing the play­offs en­tirely in Jagr’s first sea­son. Wil­son, who coached the Cap­i­tals to the 1998 Stan­ley Cup fi­nal, was fired and re­placed by Bruce Cas­sidy, who was then dis­missed him­self the fol­low­ing sea­son.

Jagr’s rep­u­ta­tion, al­ready dam­aged from those dis­ap­point­ing fi­nal days in Pitts­burgh, took an­other hit as the “coach killer” la­bel at­tached it­self amid de­clin­ing pro­duc­tion. Jagr av­er­aged only 78 points in two full sea­sons with Wash­ing­ton af­ter av­er­ag­ing 112 in his fi­nal four cam­paigns with the Pen­guins.

“Ev­ery­one ex­pected the same num­ber of points that I had in Pitts­burgh,” Jagr said. “It was just a dif­fer­ent team, with a dif­fer­ent style, dif­fer­ent play­ers and dif­fer­ent coaches. I was never go­ing to put up as many points as in Pitts­burgh.”

Cap­i­tals man­age­ment took the whole experience as a les­son that it was bet­ter to build around young play­ers and draft picks than ex­pen­sive su­per­stars in free agency. They traded Jagr to the Rangers in Jan­uary 2004, his Wash­ing­ton ten­ure last­ing less than 200 games in­clud­ing the play­offs.

Af­ter four sea­sons in New York — which in­cluded a 123point cam­paign and re­turn to dom­i­nance — Jagr shocked the hockey world by de­part­ing for the up­start Kon­ti­nen­tal Hockey League. He came back to the NHL three years later and charmed the league with his retro mul­let, sto­ried mid­night skates and rave re­views of lead­er­ship.

Jagr’s point pro­duc­tion has fallen off some­what this sea­son in Florida, but he re­mains on pace for close to 50 points with su­perb un­der­ly­ing num­bers.

The third-old­est player in league his­tory — trail­ing only Gordie Howe and Chris Che­lios — Jagr says he en­joys the game now more than he once did, stress­ing the word “en­joy” in par­tic­u­lar.

“I en­joyed it back then too, but there was more pres­sure,” Jagr said. “I felt pres­sure to be the guy, to be the best player in the world. Now, at my age, I just want to be the best that I can be.”

CP PHOTO

Florida Pan­thers’ Jaromir Jagr skates dur­ing the sec­ond pe­riod of an NHL game against the Van­cou­ver Canucks in Van­cou­ver, B.C. on Jan. 20.

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