Thursday, December 29, 2011

Jagr: From hero to villain in Pittsburgh as he returns as Flyer

The Daily Times (Delaware County)
December 29, 2011

Jaromir Jagr #68 of the Philadelphia Flyers controls the puck against Bryce Salvador #24 of the New Jersey Devils during the third period at the Prudential Center on October 8, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey.
( October 7, 2011 - Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images North America)

PITTSBURGH – They used to whistle at him in Philadelphia, his long, flowing locks blowing in the wind behind him as he skated. The sounds of Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady” blaring through the arena speakers.

Here, on the other side of the state, he was a beloved figure. His image was more akin to a rock star. He was, after all, the second-best hockey player to ever don a Pittsburgh Penguins uniform and helped them win two Stanley Cups.

Now, two decades later, the state of Pennsylvania has flipped 180 degrees when it comes to Jaromir Jagr.

Despite summer rumors to the contrary, Jagr returned to the NHL after a three-year hiatus this summer, not to the Penguins, owned by his boyhood idol and former teammate Mario Lemieux, but to the hated Philadelphia Flyers, the team that has less appeal than a glass of pond scum to fans who wear black and gold.

And now, it wouldn’t surprise if those same fans descended upon the Consol Energy Center Thursday night with pitchforks and torches hell bent on escorting Jagr to some makeshift gallows hastily constructed on the banks of the three rivers.

Yes, he’s that despised. From cab drivers who complain about him nonstop during a ride from the airport to the arena, to those younger generation fans who were in diapers when Jagr was hoisting the Cup at the pre-scalped Civic Arena – he’s unquestionably public enemy No. 1.

And he doesn’t understand why.

“First of all, I personally didn’t talk to anybody (in Pittsburgh),” he said, hinting that it was his agent, former Flyer Petr Svoboda, who was chatting with the Penguins. “I just don’t understand one thing when I read it. How, in a situation like that, can there be so much bad attitude and anger from those people? I don’t get it. What kind of world are we in right now? That’s (bleeping) scary. We should be in a world with a lot of love. Instead there’s one guy, who is 40 years old, who is almost done, and he’s causing all that (animosity) over hockey? My brain just doesn’t understand that.”

It didn’t matter that he was mercurial at the end of his time in Pittsburgh. It didn’t matter that he called Sidney Crosby a diver in the 2008 playoffs as a member of the Rangers. It didn’t matter at all what Pittsburgh folks felt was bad blood between themselves and their blemished one-time hero – it still didn’t compute.

“When I left Pittsburgh I was traded,” Jagr said. “The first time I came back with Washington everybody booed me so bad. But I was traded. I didn’t leave. But they are going to hate me anyway. They’ve hated me for seven years. Then, when there is a chance that I am going to go back there, all of the sudden they switch for one or two months? Then I don’t go, and they go back to hating me, but even more than before. I don’t get it. I don’t know what kind of world we’re living in. I don’t get it.”

And it was part of the reason Jagr passed up on a return engagement in Pittsburgh, despite an offer being extended his way.

“We wouldn't have offered him $2 million if we didn't like him,” said Penguins general manager Ray Shero, son of late Flyers coach Fred Shero. “I wouldn't say his play has exceeded my expectations because we knew he could still play. He's been a very good fit for Philadelphia. He has made (Claude) Giroux better, and vice versa.

"Maybe he isn't the player he was 10 years ago, but he's still, very, very good. He's still great from the blue line in, still has those great hands and is so strong. It's nice to know that we made an offer to a guy who can still play."

Jagr was also being courted by Detroit, which offered him more money to play there than even Philadelphia did (he is making $3.3 million for one year with the Flyers). But, there were a couple selling points for Philadelphia that weren’t there in Detroit.

“At the World Championships I played against top guys and I didn’t do bad,” Jagr said. “The whole question was, could I play at that level for a full season? I believed in myself that I could do it. That’s why I came back. There were probably a lot of doubters, but they didn’t see me play… I knew I could play third or fourth line but I believed inside that I could play first or second line still. I didn’t want to tell anybody that (publicly) but I believed I could do it.”

And so did the Flyers.

After dispatching director of player personnel Dave Brown and chief European scout Ilkka Sinisalo to watch Jagr at the 2011 World Championships, they confirmed what Russian scouts Vaclav Slansky and Ken Hoodikoff had already reported back to the executive offices – Jagr can still play at a high level.

“Free agency opened July 1,” Svoboda said. “I got a message from (Flyers general manager) Paul Holmgren on June 30. Jaromir was excited to hear from the Flyers because they were one of six teams he had listed that he wanted to play for, and although he was debating between Pittsburgh and Detroit, he really wanted to hear what Philly had to say.”

The Flyers put the hard sell on.

“I got a hold of him later that day and we talked for quite a while about the team and where he would fit,” Holmgren said. “We talked about how we were going to be a much younger team. We talked about Claude a lot and Danny Briere and some of the other young guys we are high on and it went from there.”

Svoboda said Jagr was immediately impressed by how much it seemed the Flyers wanted him.

“I have to give a lot of credit to Holmgren,” Svoboda said. “Ray Shero was interested right from the get-go, but the negotiations were really brief. It was the same thing everywhere else. Other teams were offering two years, but not really pushing hard. Holmgren had a lot of his players call Jaromir. Chris Pronger really made it sound like a great situation.

“Jaromir asked me and I told him from my time there that it was a great organization and (Flyers chairman Ed) Snider was a class act.”

Holmgren got the sense from those conversations that Philadelphia was quickly becoming a real possibility for Jagr.

“Based on what we did, I think he knew he was going to be a top line guy,” Holmgren said. “Although, he asked me, ‘Why did you trade those two guys (Jeff Carter and Mike Richards)? I thought they were two good players.’ Through that conversation he realized he was going to be one of the better forwards on the team.”

That he has. Jagr has posted 30 points in 31 games played. He has turned Scott Hartnell into an All-Star caliber player. He has helped elevate Giroux to be one of the elite players in the sport.

And he has done this while mentoring a lot of the Flyers rookies and younger players and exhibited an unrivaled, off-ice work ethic.

“(Flyers assistant coach) Joey Mullen told me that Jaromir was a rink rat when he was younger,” Holmgren said. “He transferred that at this point of his career to the gym. He does a lot of workouts by himself. He wears weight belts, walks around with weights on his ankles and goes on the ice with a weight on his stick – he continually practices his shooting. We didn’t know about all that, but it’s set a really good example for all of our young guys about preparation for games and practices.”

Holmgren pointed out that following the Flyers second win of the season – a 3-0 shutout in New Jersey – Jagr took all the rookies into a room across the hall from the locker room after the game to do push ups and sit ups.

“He’s been great, terrific,” Holmgren said. “Are those adjectives? I don’t know how many I can use. Not only his play but the other things he’s brought to the table – leadership, dedication, his experience – the success we’ve had so far this season, a lot of it can be attributed to him.”

Which is why the Flyers would like to see if Jagr would come back for another season. According to an organizational source, the Flyers are going to reach out to Svoboda very soon and see if an extension is possible.

Jagr has said all along that he’d like to wait and see what happens after a full season, including playoffs, to see what he wants to do, but if you ask Svoboda, it sounds like re-signing with the Flyers is high on the priority list.

“I haven’t spoken to Paul yet, but I will be in Philadelphia for the Winter Classic and I’m sure we’ll talk because I also represent Jake Voracek (who is on a one-year deal as well),” Svoboda said. “Jagr may have been leaning one way before July 1 but I’m glad he made the decision he did because he’s having a great time with Giroux and he loves that organization as much as I did during my five years there.”

It’s certainly an unexpected outcome for a lot of people, but one that Jagr attributes to a religious faith which was strengthened by his time in Russia.

“In my life it’s about belief,” Jagr said. “I shouldn’t ask myself questions after I do something. You should always believe that the choice you made was the right choice. You should never look back. Never. Nobody really knows what would happen if you chose a different path. If you ask me if I made a good decision, then I have to have something to compare it to. What am I going to compare (choosing Philadelphia) to? Am I supposed to use my imagination? I’m always happy with whatever decision I make. You have to believe in God and that he will put you in the situation where you need to be. Everything happens for a reason. In my life, I am always thankful.

“You learn from experience. If something happens that you think is a bad thing happening to you, five years later you look at it and you go over all the steps you realize this is the best thing that could happen. If this didn’t happen, it could have been a lot worse. After that happens to you two or three times you just say to yourself, ‘I should just trust God.’”

And God pointed him to Philadelphia, for better or worse. Not that the people of Pittsburgh understand.

“It is hard for me,” said Zbynek Michalek, the lone Czech-born player on the Penguins. “I know people here are proud of the Penguins and proud of their sports teams. They feel like he betrayed them. But I feel sorry for the guy.

“He’s a legend back home. He’s done a lot of great things for sports back home. I feel bad for him. But I do understand both sides. I know where people are coming from.”

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review contributed to this story.

No comments: