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Penguins Jagr: The Penguins forged his strengths and weaknesses

Thursday, July 12, 2001

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Jaromir Jagr came to North America in the summer of 1990 with little more than a crooked smile and breathtaking potential.

He was gifted enough to be the fifth player claimed in that year's NHL entry draft.

Courageous and motivated enough that he came to a strange land on the far side of the Atlantic at age 18 to chase his dream of playing in the National Hockey League.

Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux in a team portrait at the end of the 1996 - 97 season. Given the way Jagr idolized Lemieux, it should surprise no one that he was influenced by Lemieux's example, positive and otherwise. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Naive enough that, when the Penguins traveled to Winnipeg for a game early in his rookie season, Jagr did not take a passport or other official document to get him through Canadian customs. The only form of ID he carried was an automated-teller card.

He was, 11 years ago, impressive and impressionable, ready to be molded as a hockey player. And as a man.

And now that he has left the Penguins, it's obvious the team played a major role in shaping Jagr. For better or worse. On and off the ice.

That doesn't mean the franchise deserves all the credit for his accomplishments, like five NHL scoring championships, or all the blame for his shortcomings. Just that Jagr became, in many ways, a product of his surroundings.

And he wasn't the first with this franchise.

Fact is, there has been a cult of the individual with the Penguins since Mario Lemieux arrived in 1984 and, to some degree, that's perfectly logical. Hey, if all players were even remotely equal, there wouldn't be an eight-figure gap between salaries.

It certainly was understandable that, 17 years ago, the Penguins wanted to do everything possible to keep Lemieux happy. He represented the franchise's only realistic hope for survival.

Lemieux responded well to that approach, at least on most levels. But years of being told by management and his minions that he was exempt from the usual rules -- from doing anything that he didn't care to, really -- showed every now and then.

The most memorable example came after the Penguins' stunning overtime loss to the New York Islanders in Game 7 of the second round in the 1993 playoffs.

It is the norm on most teams for the captain to serve as a spokesman in difficult times, to be the one who stands up to waves of reporters and answers the difficult and unpleasant questions. It's a given in places like Detroit, Philadelphia and New Jersey that Steve Yzerman, Eric Desjardins and Scott Stevens will do just that.

But Lemieux, then the Penguins' captain, disappeared into an off-limits area at the end of Game 7, and did not emerge until long after most of the media had left the locker room.

His frustration and disappointment were intense and completely understandable, but when a player agrees to have the "C" stitched on his sweater, he accepts certain responsibilities, inside and outside the organization.

No one, though, was willing to prevail upon Lemieux to handle his captaincy in the customary fashion; most people, including those in upper management, seemed more concerned with not angering or alienating him.

Given the way Jagr idolized Lemieux, it should surprise no one that he was influenced by Lemieux's example, positive and otherwise.

During the past few years, Jagr was branded by charges, most with some degree of validity, that he had qualities and habits that would be disturbing in any player, let alone a designated team leader.

He complained publicly about coaches and their strategies -- to hear him talk now of his deep respect for Kevin Constantine is downright comical -- and felt no particular obligation to abide by guidelines set for the entire team.

Members of the front office have spoken of Jagr ignoring obligations for things like autograph-signing sessions, and it wasn't unusual for him to be fashionably late for team meetings and the like. Fittingly, he was tardy for the Penguins' season-ending session after New Jersey beat them in the Eastern Conference final.

The Penguins probably did Jagr a disservice by giving him so much latitude, by not forcing him to adhere to the rules that governed his teammates.

Jagr is intelligent and proud and a proven self-starter; he could have adapted to any circumstances, and might well have excelled even more than he did if the Penguins had compelled him to operate strictly within a team structure.

The irony in all of this is that Lemieux ended up being not only Jagr's teammate, but his owner. And Lemieux, long one of Jagr's most staunch defenders, clearly became exasperated by much of what he saw from Jagr.

Whether he recognized himself -- and winced -- in some of Jagr's maverick actions is hard to say.

The final twist is that, during Phase 2 of his playing career, Lemieux has been a wonderful spokesman and point man for his team and sport. He has said and done all the right things since coming out of retirement in late December.

It's entirely possible that Jagr will do the same for his new team, too. That will require breaking some habits and accepting some discipline, but that's hardly out of the question. And it just might make Jagr an even better player.

Jaromir Jagr told reporters at a news conference at his Prague sports bar in late June that he was looking forward to being traded off the Penguins roster. (David Veis, Associated Press)

And, make no mistake: The Penguins did not trade Jagr because they don't appreciate his talents or because he can be insubordinate or because they don't care for his off-ice activities.

They dealt him because the numbers simply gave them no choice.If Jagr were making, say, $9 million over the next two seasons instead of $20.7 million, the subject of moving him never would have come up.

Players with his pedigree are too rare, too precious to give up unless there is no option.

There is an NHL adage which holds that the team getting the best player wins the trade; if that's true, the Penguins were in a can't-win position when they traded Jagr, because he is regarded by many as the most gifted player in hockey.

The Penguins didn't get another Jagr in this deal. They couldn't. There isn't one.

And it could be decades before a player who is Jagr's equal joins this organization again. The Penguins and their followers have been remarkably lucky, with two once-in-a-lifetime talents working in this town in less than two decades.

There's a very real possibility the Penguins never will get a third. Or, at the very least, that it will be years before he arrives.

But whenever -- if ever -- that player does show up, the Penguins would do well to remember the lessons taught by their handling of Lemieux. And the now-departed player who once idolized him.

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