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Penguins Off-ice rumors cast pall on Jagr's season

Tuesday, July 10, 2001

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Jaromir Jagr's professional pendulum noticeably swayed to and fro this past Penguins season. There were his two requests to be traded and a slump that left him, by his admission in November, "dying alive." There was the return of Mario Lemieux as a linemate and a torrent of points that netted a fourth NHL scoring title. Then, there was a punchless playoff end, replete with a shoulder injury, a televised argument with Coach Ivan Hlinka and a third trade request.

Off-ice troubles or not, Jaromir Jagr still managed to win a fourth consecutive scoring title. (Frank Gunn, Associated Press)

Jagr's personal pendulum swung wildly, too. There were media reports about a past predilection for casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. There were millions upon millions of dollars lost in rising taxes and falling stocks. There were increasingly stronger signals from Lemieux and the Penguins' front office that Jagr's $20.7 million salary over the next two seasons, not to mention his salary thereafter, might well force the only NHL employer he ever knew to trade him away.

Did all this hinder Jagr's play and hasten his desire to leave the Penguins?

"Oh, I think so," said no less a source than his linemate, teammate and boss, Mario Lemieux. "If you're a young kid like him, probably at one point worth 40, 45 million -- I don't know how much of that he lost. But it's got to affect you.

"I think he's looking for a fresh start somewhere else. It's probably time for a change."

Added Carolina's Ron Francis, a longtime linemate and friend: "Certainly, all this is something new for him to deal with. He's always been a pretty easy-going, happy-go-lucky kid. When you hear you're moving, it could ... change your personality, no doubt."

In a very overt manner, the Penguins are attempting to move Jagr, 29. His agent, Mike Barnett, is pursuing contract-extension talks with the New York Rangers and a few other possible suitors in a Penguins-blessed move to facilitate a potential trade. Any Jagr trade talk is tied to a payroll problem, said Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick, and is "absolutely not" related to any personal issues that have been raised.

 
 
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This right winger from Kladno, Czech Republic, endured clashes with coaches, various slumps and nagging injuries over the past four seasons, yet he emerged as the NHL scoring champion each time. No matter his moodiness, his reputation with coaches, his suddenly public personal life, his ever-present smiles giving way to a more frequent sullen outlook, he remains a tradeable commodity.

Among NHL general managers, the only impediment for Jagr is finances -- not his, but that of the select few teams that could afford his salary. "Otherwise," Vancouver GM Brian Burke said, "there'd be no reservations at all."

"If he's got all the problems people are saying, and he's still [leading the league], geesh," said Kip Miller, a former linemate. "We've got guys checking into rehab all the time with drugs and stuff, and [teams] don't shy away from them."

To hockey people from near and far, Jagr remains a multi-layered, mood-swinging enigma.

His disposition could vary day to day, moment to moment, which may sound odd for a handsome teen idol with a league and a pile of wealth at his feet. Yet that disposition long has been firmly rooted in his and his team's success, or perceived lack thereof. Some of his actions around the ice, while quite probably normal from such an elite hockey artist, became distractions for some teammates if not detractions for a potential future employer. Some of his hobbies, while completely legal, were of the financial-rush nature: blackjack or baccarat in Vegas or Atlantic City; the stock exchange; trading stocks.

Yet teammates past and present extol his value to a team on and off the ice. Even Kevin Constantine, the former Penguins coach who clashed with this captain the most, said he would offer a positive review if any NHL general manager asked him for a scouting report. None has called, said the president of the Island Sports Center on Neville Island. But, if some did, "I would tell them the truth."

"He's a phenomenal talent with the ability to carry a team, because he did at points," Constantine added. "I'd tell them for the most part he's a good guy. It was fun. Then I'd have to tell them that sometimes it was challenging, to get him to think along the lines to buy into some things ... about what we were doing collectively as a group. Jaromir's not afraid to disagree pretty strongly. And there were three or four times that we would disagree."

The disagreements were exacerbated, Constantine continued with a laugh, "by the willfulness of both parties to get the point across. People have to remember, that was three or four times over 2 1/2 years." And, after one of those disputes, Jagr walked into Constantine's Southpointe office and proceeded to launch into a seven-hour chat.

An enigma, indeed.

"Whoever gets him next year will get a pretty good player for ... I don't know how long," Constantine continued. "How he reacts, you can't always anticipate."

Changes in personality and the exchange

First of all, any discussion of Jagr must start at his capitalistic beginning. When he arrived in Pittsburgh 11 years ago -- in blue jeans, alongside his mother, as the fifth overall selection in the 1990 Entry Draft -- he came from a communist Czechoslovakia. He spoke scant English. He was 18. In every sense, it was an entirely new world for him.

Fast times on the ice and on Western Pennsylvania roadways followed (his speeding tickets were legendary in the early 1990s). The goals and his black mane flowed. He lead the league in scoring in the Lemieux-less, strike-abbreviated 1995 season. He scored more than 95 points each of the six seasons to follow, four times topping the NHL. He won Stanley Cups each of his first two seasons, but experienced public flameouts the past two times his Penguins reached the conference finals (against Florida in 1996 and against New Jersey this past season).

"At some point, winning a scoring title isn't enough," said Burke, the Vancouver GM. "At some point, a player has to want more than that, such as winning [another] Cup."

Observers detected a more pronounced sullen streak in Jagr last season.

Maybe it was a result of his slump, which seemed to end shortly before Lemieux's December return.

Maybe it was a result of Lemieux's return.

Maybe it was the stocks business.

Maybe it was the imminent end of his Penguins days.

Maybe it was all the above.

The slump theory: "When it comes to game time, he wants to be the best, and when it doesn't happen, he's not happy," said Dave Roche, another former teammate. Added Patrick, the Penguins' GM who drafted Jagr in 1990 and watched him grow: "Oh, yeah, he wants to be the best at all times. Even when things aren't going in a positive way for the team, he blames himself and puts all that much pressure on himself."

The Lemieux theory: "I think that could have a lot to do with it -- Mario comes back, and all of the sudden [Jagr's] the second guy again, and they're picking on him because Mario's there," said Miller, whom the Penguins dispatched to minor-league Grand Rapids in early February. "I mean, I wasn't there some of the time. But he takes things personally. He got accustomed to being 'the man' on the team, and that's got to be an adjustment for a guy like that."

The stocks theory: Lemieux and other Penguins subscribe to that reason, in combination with all the above. Although the New York Post reported during the Devils-Penguins playoff series that Jagr lost roughly $20 million dabbling in dot.coms, the figure is believed to be barely half that: somewhere between $8 million and $13 million. And the cause of the losses appears to be a blend of a U.S. tax hit on stock gains plus the plunge in dot.com stock values last fall. As many a player pointed out: Every investor took a hit on dot.com stocks last year, right?

Jagr explained to the Post in a interview last weekend that he "accidentally made a lot of money," then turned those profits into a 10-percent ownership stake of a small company ... which soon after tumbled. "But that was just the money I made," he added.

Jagr himself admitted, without citing reasons why, that his 2000-2001 wasn't up to his standards, despite the fact he once again topped the NHL in scoring, with 121 points. His playoff performance, hampered by a left-shoulder injury that required pain-killing injections, caused him to finish 20th among NHL scorers -- and just three points ahead of Penguins rookie defenseman Andrew Ference.

"I know I had a bad season," Jagr told the Post. "I didn't play my best this year."

Then again, maybe Jagr was in a funk this season because he couldn't drive fast.

On Oct. 24, he received a speeding ticket that pushed his point total to 12, the maximum, and caused PennDOT officials to suspend his driving privileges for 180 days. His license was surrendered April 20. No. 68 couldn't even drive 55. When his silver Mercedes arrived a minute late for the Penguins' break-up meeting May 24 at Southpointe, a companion was driving.

Gambling man

"He doesn't drink. He doesn't live excessively," said Miller, one of several Penguins who would stop by Jagr's modest house -- by Upper St. Clair standards -- for dinner or go to the movies with him. "He's not a big go-out guy. Pretty mellow."

"He's not in a situation where he can go out," Francis added, "and he's not the type of kid to go in the back door."

Sometime, somehow, gambling forays became an outlet. Jagr was spotted at various times in the late 1990s at Vegas' MGM Grand or Bally's casinos. Alone or in the company of Czech male companions -- and once reputedly at the same Atlantic City table as Tiger Woods, whom a friend claimed was tossing in dollars by the hundreds compared to Jagr's thousands -- the hockey superstar was known to spend hours with chips and games of chance.

One Pittsburgher found Jagr at a $1,000-minimum-bet blackjack table in Vegas once. Jagr grew into such a high roller, the New York Post reported that Atlantic City's Caesar's casino gave him a $500,000 line of credit at a private baccarat table. Some casinos arranged for transportation, once sending a jet to fly Jagr and a few friends to Vegas during a three-day break in the Penguins' schedule.

Constantine, the coach then, didn't think much of it: His own brother had been the recipient of a free casino flight.

"That information alone, unless you start piling more on it, isn't alarming about a group of athletes," Constantine said. "They all jump on junkets and go on golfing trips to Ireland. When you're in that world, it's not that uncommon.

"[Penguins coaches heard] a little bit of innuendo here and there. None of it was prevalent enough for us to institute an investigation."

Lemieux said he was aware of Jagr's penchant for casinos, but "I was never around when he went to Vegas and stuff."

Added Howard Baldwin, the Penguins' owner then and now a movie producer in Hollywood: "Frankly, I don't think it's anybody's business. I go up [to Vegas] four or five times a year. I put money in the 50-cent slots and catch a few shows. The last time I checked, it wasn't illegal."

Jagr told the Post that he visited Vegas in the offseason, for both the shows and the legalized gambling. "I don't think if I take $10,000 to gamble, that's a problem. ... It's not like I have to go there for gambling. I don't know any other city where you can go for 14 days and see something new every day -- every casino has a different show, and I've seen every show three or four times. I go with my friends, 10 or 11 people ..."

NHL rules don't prevent players from legalized gambling, but they do prohibit them from betting on league games, much like other U.S. professional leagues. Members of the league's security department meet with each of the teams once a season to discuss this topic among various facets to beware, such as drugs and alcohol. The league and the NHL Players Association jointly sponsor a program for players troubled by substance abuse or behavioral health problems, the latter of which includes gambling. Participation is voluntary, though sometimes the league demands that a player complete a program before being allowed to return to play.

Baldwin and Constantine said the NHL never expressed concern to them about Jagr's gambling habits. Nor did the Penguins have a particular problem with Jagr.

Patrick once addressed the Penguins about betting on charter flights, he said. He spoke to the players sometime in the Cup seasons of 1990-91 or 1991-92, possibly even 1992-93.

"Sometimes, when the stakes get too high, you may get bad feelings on the team. I wanted to make sure that didn't happen. So that's the only time I ever spoke to the team [about gambling]."

NHL officials refuse to comment about investigations or personal interventions in particular. Commissioner Gary Bettman said simply, "People occasionally go into a bar and have a beer. That doesn't mean they're alcoholics. Plenty of people go to casinos in Las Vegas and gamble, and that doesn't mean they have a gambling problem. I think it's unfair to any individual to jump to a conclusion."

Casino officials declined specific comment about Jagr or any guests, citing privacy. Bally's spokesman Andy Maiden of Las Vegas said, generally speaking, anyone the casino staff views as a big bettor is entitled to complimentary services such as meals, lodging, transportation and other perks. There's no strict policy determining how much in comps or credit line a guest may receive.

Did casino gambling become a problem for Jagr? Well, he never apparently missed a practice, workout or treatment because of anything other than an occasional injury. Miller continued, "I can't see it. If a bunch of guys were going to Vegas, he would, for sure. But hockey season is crammed pretty tight. I don't know when he could find time to do that."

All signs, however, point toward Jagr spending more and more time with stocks than chips the past few years.

Jaromir Jagr was "dying alive" at one point. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Actions and distractions?

As a teammate or employee, Jagr's record can hardly be argued. His Penguins teams always made the Stanley Cup playoffs. He won the scoring title in five of his 11 Penguins seasons. He compiled hockey hardware and All-Star berths and even a 1996 Olympic gold medal in Nagano, Japan.

You don't think some NHL club would covet a player of such pedigree, no matter the moodiness or coaching clashes?

"He always played to win," Miller said. "He might have seemed different, but I think that was because he was in his own game so much. While the team was doing one thing, he was off doing his own thing because that was what he felt he needed to do. Because he only wanted the team to win."

Nevertheless, there were funks caused by anything from lackluster play to girlfriend visits to the variety of issues that Jagr confronted this season. In the end, both he and the Penguins came to grips with an agreement: It was time to move on.

"Some guys can go their entire career in one place and be happy," said Penguins left winger Kevin Stevens. "He definitely thinks he needs a change. He's a good kid, too. People should never forget what he's done here. But he needs a little push, and maybe [a change of team] is what he needs."

Jagr's time as a Penguins star might end within days. It might end within months. It might end around the trade deadline next March, although even Jagr doesn't seem to want to endure that wait.

"Whatever happens, happens," he said. What happened this past season, he added, provided a life lesson. "If you don't have your bad days or the bad years, you're not going to enjoy the good ones. It's not the worst thing to happen to you, but you can always learn.

"I think one day I'm going to look at it like a gift. I'm going to look at this as one of the best things to happen to me. But right now, it hurts. I don't have the patience."


Post-Gazette staff writers Dave Molinari, Dejan Kovacevic, Gary Rotstein and Jeffrey Cohan contributed to this report.

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