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NHL PREVIEW -- Jaromir Jagr: His moment has arrived

He begins his 8th season in Pittsburgh with the confidence and maturity needed to assume the role

Friday, October 09, 1998

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Steve Latin, the Penguins' equipment manager, never doubted that his trip to the Czech Republic in August would be a learning experience. Mostly because there was so much he didn't know about his destination.

He didn't speak the language. Not a syllable.

 
  Pittsburgh Penguins' Jaromir Jagr. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

He couldn't read a menu and, even if he could have, wouldn't have recognized most of the food on it.

Heck, Latin didn't even realize that his host, Jaromir Jagr, was nothing less than a cultural icon in his homeland. At least not until he had been in the Czech Republic for, oh, five or six minutes.

"He's like Elvis Presley over there," Latin said. "He can't go anywhere. ... It was something to see because you really don't realize until you're there, how big he is."

That truth was reinforced in the nightclubs of Prague. At the fashion shows where Jagr's girlfriend, Eva, worked as a model. Even on the sidewalks of Kladno, Jagr's hometown.

"One time we were walking out of his parents' house in Kladno, and these little kids were down at the end of the block," Latin said.

"They were yelling to Yags, and I didn't know what they were saying. He said, "Seve, turn around.' I turned around, and they were saluting him."

Had he asked, Latin probably would been told that those boys never have heard of Terrell Davis and the Denver Broncos; they associate the Mile High Salute with one athlete, and he's a right winger, not a running back.

Fact is, Jagr is so wildly popular in the Czech Republic that if he chose to celebrate goals by pulling out a handful of hair instead of snapping off a salute, thousands of kids there would be running around with bald patches on their heads.

Jagr is 26, and not that many years removed from boyhood. Perhaps that's why he seems to have a special affinity for the children back home.

"He has time for all the little kids," Latin said. "It's the little kids who flock to him. He never says no."

Jagr has gotten accustomed to the adulation he receives at home. Says he doesn't "mind it at all." Good thing, because there's no reason to think his profile will fade anytime soon. If Jagr's not the most recognizable figure in the Czech Republic, he's on the short list of finalists.

"Anywhere he goes, the people know him," said center Martin Straka, a fellow Czech. "The people just go crazy when they see him because he's the best player who ever played in Czech, and he's the No. 1 player in the NHL. Everybody knows that back home."

Coming to America

In reality, whether Jagr is the premier player in the NHL is a matter of opinion. Guys like Dominik Hasek, Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya have plenty of backers, too.

Jagr is, however, unquestionably the dominant presence on the Penguins. Has been since Mario Lemieux gave up the game in the spring of 1997. And he's gotten quite comfortable with it.

When he joined the Penguins in 1990, Jagr was just a promising teenager on a team poised to win a couple of Stanley Cups. In his first two years as a pro, Jagr shared a dressing room with the likes of Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Kevin Stevens, Mark Recchi, Rick Tocchet, Ron Francis, Larry Murphy, Ulf Samuelsson, Tom Barrasso and Bryan Trottier.

Lemieux and Trottier already are in the Hall of Fame. More than a few others from that group will end up there, too. It's not hard to understand why Jagr, homesick and baffled by the mysteries of English, was overwhelmed during his early days in North America.

"He came here and was in a lot of shadows," Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick said. "It was a pretty good team, the year he got here. As the years went by, the shadows start to fade, or disappear. Now he's emerged as the guy casting the shadow."

And, the Penguins hope, setting the example. Jagr is a mortal lock to succeed Francis as the Penguins' captain. That's a job he swore he never wanted - until last month, when he went public with his desire to wear the "C."

The change in attitude is a reflection of Jagr's maturity, but also of the makeup of his team. One by one, the great forwards and defensemen who passed through here in the 1990s have moved on.

Jagr is the only one left, making him the logical choice to be captain. No matter how much he used to swear he would have no parts of such duty.

"It's very understandable," Patrick said. "If you're on a team with Ronnie Francis and Mario Lemieux, or Kevin Stevens or Rick Tocchet, you think they should be the captain, so you don't want any part of it if they're there. Once they're not there, why wouldn't you want to be the captain?"

Jagr feels the same way, even though he doesn't fit the stereotype of a grizzled veteran.

"Of course I'm not [a kid], but I still feel like I am," he said. "Even though I've played nine years here, I'm still 26. ... Not many people think I've been here that long."

Actually, Jagr has spent nearly a third of his life working in this town. During that time, he has played with two captains, Lemieux and Francis, for whom he expresses deep and enduring respect. Perfect models on whom to pattern his captaincy.

"What I would love to be is, like Mario on the ice and like Ronnie off the ice," Jagr said. "But that's impossible."

So he'll settle for being himself. Which is to say, brilliantly skilled, intense, fun-loving and competitive. A guy who hates to lose, but isn't inclined to vent his frustrations by kicking over locker-room tables or verbally abusing a teammate who's having a bad game.

"I don't think it's going to help anybody to scream at someone," he said. "I'm not that kind of a guy. I know that if somebody would scream at me, I would quit. I'm not used to being treated like that.

"If somebody plays bad, that happens to everybody. Everybody plays bad one day. That's why it's a team game. The other guys have to help him, not scream at him."

Although Jagr shouldn't have to do much motivating over the next six or so months - if the Penguins' talent level were as good as their intangibles, they'd be Stanley Cup contenders - the other players figure to monitor his actions and examples.

"I have confidence in him," right winger Rob Brown said. "All the players here do. For us to get anywhere this year, we have to follow his lead. Hopefully, he's going to lead us in the right direction."

Scoring champion

Jagr was the only NHL player to breach the 100-point plateau last season, when he earned his second scoring title in four years.

It was, by any measure, a pretty impressive feat. But not nearly as remarkable as it would be if Jagr could match that output this season without Francis, his longtime linemate.

Coach Kevin Constantine contends that, "I've got so much respect for his abilities that I would not put any accomplishment out of his reach," but several factors mitigate against Jagr hitting triple figures again.

The most significant is that the Penguins do not have a center with Francis' skills, experience or playmaking ability. Even if they did, he and Jagr would need time to learn each other's games, a time-consuming process.

"Probably the one hurdle to get over right now is adjustment," Constantine said. "We could get another talented guy there, but it's still going to take two or three months for those guys to have some chemistry."

Using Straka on the No. 1 line should shorten the adjustment period - he and Jagr have played together before, and have been friends since Straka joined the Penguins in 1992 - but it would be foolish to suggest the transition will be seamless.

Still, Jagr can't be counted out of the Art Ross Trophy race. He remains an awesome hybrid of speed, size and skill, and is blessed with what Constantine described as "unbelievable intuition" about the game.

"It's phenomenal, really," Constantine said. "It's rare that he doesn't see a situation on the ice and have evaluated it."

Whether those instincts, coupled with Jagr's breathtaking abilities, will translate to another 100-point season is hard to say. Even Jagr acknowledges that the odds are not particularly in his favor.

"The league's getting tougher and tougher, and I had a tough time doing it last year," he said. "I was the only one who did it, and I played with Ronnie. I don't know what's going to happen."

No one does. But the players who have watched Jagr over the years recognize the dangers of proclaiming a 100-point season to be beyond his grasp.

"He's a complete hockey player right now, the best in the NHL, and he can prove it every game," Straka said. "When he wants to play, he's the best."

New challenges

Less than a year after he arrived in North America for the first time, Jagr had won a Stanley Cup. Twelve months later, it happened again.

A pattern was beginning to emerge: Jagr would report to training camp in early fall, play lots of games until the next spring, then go to a big party at Three Rivers Stadium before flying home for the summer.

So far as he could tell in those early years, the Penguins would be holding a Stanley Cup celebration every year for as long as he was in the league.

"That's what I thought," Jagr said, "but after a while I realized it wasn't going to be that easy. It's pretty hard to win the Stanley Cup."

So tough that he might never do it again. Nonetheless, some of the lessons Jagr absorbed from veteran teammates during those championship years will stay with him for the balance of his career.

"I learned a lot of things from those guys," he said. "I'll never forget those guys. They were great guys, and great players."

And, in most cases, dedicated professionals whose work ethic made an indelible impression.

When he played in the former Czechoslovakia, Jagr figured his job consisted of showing up for practices and games. When he joined the Penguins, though, Jagr saw perennial all-stars like Paul Coffey routinely hop on an exercise bike after practices and games and pedal furiously.

"I looked at him and he was 29, 30 years old, and he was riding the bike and I felt embarrassed," Jagr said. "That's when I started to do it. . . . They made me realize that working hard during practice and riding the bike, even the good players do that."

The Penguins' successes earlier this decade could have spoiled Jagr, deluded him into believing that long playoff runs were an entitlement. But he never has taken winning for granted, and understands that some good can come of adversity.

"It makes you a stronger person," Jagr said. "Makes you a better hockey player."

That mindset explains why Jagr never has asked to be traded, even though he has watched as the Penguins have gone from being the league's dominant club to one that's outrageously average. If anything, playing for a team expected to flirt with a .500 record seems to give him extra incentive.

"It's easy to play on a good team," Jagr said. "Why should I leave the team when it's not that good?

"To do something on a bad team - I'm not saying we're a bad team, but we're not like we used to be - if you do something good with that team, that's what makes you good."

Because hockey is a team game, there are limits to what an individual can achieve. The most compelling evidence of that is that the Penguins sat out the playoffs in each of Lemieux's first four seasons.

Still, there are times when difficult circumstances inspire a player to do amazing things. That happened in Anaheim last season, when Teemu Selanne tied for the league lead with 52 goals - one fewer than the Mighty Ducks' next three top goal-scorers combined.

"That's the true test of a superstar, of a leader, if they can do it by themselves," Brown said. "If they can be a star with no superstar supporting cast."

Uncertain future

Jagr isn't just one of the best players in pro hockey. He's one of the biggest bargains. At least for another few months.

The catch is, his compensation package balloons from $4,905,158 this season to $8,976,519 in 1999-2000, and the prevailing sentiment in some hockey circles is that he will be cashing paychecks in some other city at this time next year.

Maybe Los Angeles, where the Kings would like to have a marquee talent as they prepare to move into their new arena. Possibly New York, where big-name players - and big-time contracts - are always welcome. Perhaps Philadelphia, where the Flyers still haven't gotten over taking Mike Ricci instead of Jagr in the 1990 draft.

Such thinking seems perfectly logical - Jagr has a lot of money coming before his contract expires in 2003, and the Penguins have been hemorrhaging cash for several years - but Patrick insists it is misguided.

"We fully anticipate him being here until the end of his career," he said.

That might still be a decade or so down the road, given Jagr's unabashed love for his work. And if he's still wearing a Penguins sweater by the time flecks of gray begin to show up in his mane, well, Jagr doesn't sound like he'd mind much.

Fact is, he has an intense loyalty to the team and, to some degree, the town.

"I feel like I owe this city something," Jagr said. "I owe this team. [When] I came here, I was 18 years old, and I wasn't the nicest guy in the world.

"I did stupid things, and they always stayed behind me. Craig and the organization and the owners, they always were nice to me. I feel like I owe them something."

That doesn't mean he'll be sinking permanent roots here. Jagr clearly prefers life in the Czech Republic to that in the U.S., for reasons ranging from the close-knit nature of Czech society ("It's like a big family") to driving conditions here ("Everything's too slow").

Jagr still has a passion for fast driving, although he no longer collects traffic tickets the way most people his age collect CDs. That's one indication of how he's grown up over the years. Another is that he's begun to ponder the time when he will be married and raising a family.

"Of course, one day it's going to happen," he said. "I don't think I'm ready yet. I'm still like a kid. I don't think I can be responsible for a family yet. I have a tough time taking care of myself."

Actually, he's gotten to be pretty good at that. Which is why it's only natural that Jagr will be assuming even more responsibility for the welfare of his team this season.

In many ways, Jagr is much the same as he was earlier in his career. His hair remains long, his smile quick and easy. On deeper levels, though, he bears scant resemblance to the guy who was wearing No. 68 a few seasons ago.

"He's matured," Latin said. "I see a big difference in him from last year to this year. He's a man.

"I think he's ready to grab the reins and run with it. Maybe it's his moment in time now, and he understands that."



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