So Long, Jaromir Jag-off

Why Penguins fans should be relieved that no. 68 didn’t come home.


 

At 2:48 pm EST on Friday, the first day of the NHL’s free agency bonanza, the city of Pittsburgh imploded. It all started with an impossibly brief message posted on Twitter by Washington Times reporter Stephen Whyno. His 26-character bombshell was a perfect metaphor for our sporting times: the message itself, a hastily mashed fragment; the explosive reaction to it, the way it was instantaneously translated into Russian, French and Swedish; and the prologue surrounding the five-word tripwire that glowed on monitors across the world, the pandering, nostalgia and inevitable letdown ...

“Jagr to Flyers. Done Deal.”

A couple things happened with the digital heralding of that news. Penguins fans sat slack-jawed staring into the abyss of their laptops like Stephen Whyno had just said, “We need to talk about us,” Flyers fans took to the communal therapy of their favorite blogs to talk themselves into a 39-year-old enigma as their team’s leased show pony, and most importantly, Mario Lemieux kicked back in a leather office chair worth more than your family sedan and lit photos of his supposed pal Jaromir on fire with the butt of a Cuban cigar.

What “Jagr to Flyers” means in the grand scheme of things probably has a lot more to do with our psyches as Penguins fans, and maybe even sports fans in general, than it does the landscape of the NHL in 2011.

Because no matter what lies our "Best of Jagr" YouTube marathons tricked us into believing in the yuletide of free-agency, the 39-year-old version of Double J will not be splitting defenders, bouncing off forecheckers and defrocking goaltenders in Skid Row regalia. He’s no longer the blur hydroplaning across your laptop. He’s now a regal old solider who's spent his three-year, self-imposed exile in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League in a state of gradual, graceful decline. In 155 games with the humorless-sounding Omsk Avangard (bless you), Jagr scored (wait for it) 66 goals.

Not bad, but certainly not Magnifique. And when you consider the diminished competition of the KHL and his penchant for the sort of emotional volatility that makes your ex-girlfriend seem well-adjusted, the $3.3 million the Flyers paid for his services is peculiar. But more peculiar is that it only took a difference of $1.3 million to coax Jagr into a Hollywood Hulk Hogan style double-cross of his former mentor and idol, Lemieux.

Like the knee-capitated Nancy Kerrigan, we ask, Why?

Why, why why?

Our city’s 48-hour meltdown, replete with smoldering retro-Jagr jerseys, has nothing to do with the strength of the Penguins’ team without Jagr. It’s about disrespect. Even after Pens fans forgave Jagr for years of passive-aggressive sulking and aggressive-aggressive demands for former general manager Craig Patrick to ship him out of town (which torpedoed his trade value and left the Penguins’ ship Kris Beech’ed for a half-decade), even after Jagr's agent said his client's “heart was in Pittsburgh,” even after a few intrepid citizen journalists drove to the Pittsburgh International Airport to confirm rumors that his flight from the Czech Republic was inbound, even after everyone shielded themselves from cynicism and believed, Jaromir Jagr went dark on the Pittsburgh Penguins. He went dark on us.

In the words of general manager Ray Shero at Saturday’s postmortem press conference, “It just never felt right.”

Jagr extended his hand to Penguins fans, and we all reached to slap him five. But he pulled it away and slicked back the hair where his flowing mullet used to reside.

There's no hockey hair there anymore—just the boring, cropped chopped salad of a businessman. Despite our wildest, unsuppressed hopes, Jagr was never growing his hair long again. He was never going to morph into that wild-eyed, 20-year-old kid who made The Igloo explode with his preposterous balance and effortless speed and grace in a way that even Super Mario couldn’t.

The Igloo is gone, and so is the Jagr we once loved.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Jagr doesn’t want to come back to the NHL to win his third Stanley Cup. He wants to come back to play star again. He wants to rack up power play points and salute his own fading greatness. In an interview with reporters on Saturday, he said just as much. After empty platitudes about wanting to go to a team that could compete for a Cup (hockey’s new vacation-season boilerplate cliche), Jagr shed light on his motivation:

"For me it's an advantage to have centermen like Briere and Giroux (who) have a right-handed shot," Jagr said. "If I were playing in Pittsburgh, where it's Crosby or Malkin, (both) left-handed, I don't think I would be able to play there. If go to Detroit, Datsyuk and Zetterberg are left-handed. I don't think I would have a chance to play at all."
 



In the end, Crosby's shadow loomed too large for Jagr. Maybe the shadow looked a bit too much like one he used to know. Even at 39, a veritable grown-ass-man, his fragile ego came first.

There was a power vacuum in Philadelphia after their two petulant B-list stars, captain sourpuss Mike Richards and workmanlike sniper Jeff Carter were traded away, and Jagr saw an opportunity to be the alpha dog once more. That was more important to him than his legacy to Penguins fans, his supposed but almost unverifiable “friendship” with Lemieux and his chances of lifting a Cup.

What the Penguins have now, two megastars and a cast of supporting actors who have made financial sacrifices to be here (Tyler Kennedy and Pascal Dupuis both took less than their market value to stay in black-and-gold), is far more exciting than a declining, softening winger.

It’s easy to look at Philadelphia’s stupefying five-year takeover of Superstar Incorporated and its CEO Maxime Talbot and have a quiet chuckle at the money they threw at him, like Shero himself did in his press conference. But then you realize why teams like the Flyers offer silly terms to buddy-cop grinders like Talbot (see also: Colby Armstrong). Those teams want the locker room that the Penguins already have. It goes deeper than pranks.

It’s hard to imagine Jagr taking a ribbing in the Penguins’ locker room (would he laugh it off if someone put a pacifier in his locker, as teammates did to Sid?) But it’s even harder to picture him grinding out checking drills during a Tuesday morning practice. There’s a reason why Bill Guerin retired at 39, the same age Jagr is currently. It was the grind: the off-season workout programs (six minute miles), the weight room squats (500 pounds), the red-eye flights from Ottawa to Boston and the backbreaking cycling drills in practice, not to mention the extra maintenance work a 39-year-old has to do to keep up with a linemate like Crosby.

When you hear Jagr talk to the media, he doesn’t seem like someone prepared for the grind. He doesn’t seem ready to sacrifice everything for the Cup. When I chatted with Shero before last season’s trade deadline, he said something illuminating about his philosophy of building his team: “There might be better players available on the market, but they might not be Pittsburgh Penguins,” he said. “I want to build a team for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, not the regular season.”

Jagr in 2011 is not a Penguin. He would have spent this season doing his best Alexei Kovalev impression—treading water along the fringes of the offensive zone and waiting for power plays to convince us, and himself, that he still gives a damn.

You don’t tread water on a line with Crosby. He doesn’t stand for it. That’s the reason why hustlers like Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz flank him instead of more talented wingers. That’s the reason why he’s never once asked Shero for a scoring winger, according to Shero himself. He doesn’t necessarily want or need one. All Crosby demands is sacrifice. It’s hard to imagine Sid, or coach Dan Bylsma for that matter, prayed for the return of the prodigal son.
 


 

Would Jagr have helped the Penguins in the veteran role formerly filled by Bill Guerin and Petr Sykora? Would he dive feet-first in front of a slapshot like Sykora did in Game 6 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, sacrificing himself for a greater good, something hardly anyone outside the Penguins locker room remembers today?

Not likely. In the orange and black, Jagr will probably score a handful of scintillating one-timers on the power play while being liability in the defensive zone. He will be nothing like the phenom of our nostalgia.

As hockey fans, we want to believe in magic. Perhaps it’s because we’ve seen so much of it in Pittsburgh over the past two decades. We’ve seen the way Crosby has handled success, and we want to believe that every hero is a kid at heart. In Lemieux, we’ve seen a superstar knocked down by cancer make a dramatic, secret return to the ice without missing a step, then follow up that miracle in his post-career life not just by saving the franchise, but by devoting his life to philanthropy with The Lemieux Foundation.

We can't help it. We want to believe in Superman, because we’ve seen him with our own eyes.

But we were reminded once again on Friday that not everyone is Super Mario. Most certainly not Mr. Jagr.

Now the reformed gambler better pray his $3.3 million parlay was worth the risk.
 

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