Friday, December 30, 2011

Jagr shows best, worst sides

Friday, December 30, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 29: Jaromir Jagr #68 of the Philadelphia Flyers scores on his back hand against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on December 29, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

If Jaromir Jagr was going to be cast as the villain, he apparently was determined to play the role to the hilt.

For his opening act, he showed up in town two days ago and droned through a painstaking media session at the Philadelphia Flyers' practice in Castle Shannon. Hidden under an orange hoody, he pouted like a child and sounded like a bitter, old man.

When a reporter asked how he might handle being booed by Pittsburghers, he fired back a snarly, "Then, I can't play."

For the second act, he had a far brighter disposition Thursday morning at Consol Energy Center. This, too, was familiar for those who know his mega-moody personality.

In ending the media session following the Flyers' skate, he toyed with reporters: "Bottom line: I'm here, and you guys are over there. I've got to come to the game. Everybody is going to hate me, and I still have to play."

And for his finale, but he went grand. Seriously grand.

Jagr was nothing less than the best player on the ice in the Flyers' 4-2 victory over the Penguins last night — never mind his ridiculous omission from the three stars — with a sizzling goal, a chip along the boards that led to another, a goal-saving stick-lift of James Neal's blade and a wealth of other displays of his still-estimable talent at age 39.

Afterward, in the most predictable event of the evening, Jagr could barely contain himself ...

On his bold rush and breathtaking backhander for the goal: "You know, I had so many chances. It just shows what kind of a player I am now. The Jagr of 15 years ago would have scored five goals."

Broad grin.

On celebrating that goal by performing that old "Mile High Salute" right to the face of a male fan in the front row wearing a Penguins sweater: "Oh, I've got to enjoy every moment I've got left. Every game could be my last game."

Playful grin.

On the reaction of a female fan nearby: "She didn't exactly salute me back."

Devilish grin.

On his stick-lift of Neal: "That was the best play of my hockey career. I've never been so close to my own net."

Silly grin.

Despise him, boo and taunt him all you want, but the sum of this script was that Jagr was brilliant.

Everyone remembers that about him, too, right?

This, for those in Pittsburgh whose introduction to hockey was the Sidney Crosby lottery, was the real Jagr, all wrapped up in a tidy 48-hour drama. And this also is why so many hung on every sliver of news this summer when it looked like he might return to the Penguins. For all the headaches, the man scores like few in NHL history, especially when duly motivated.

But I couldn't help but think through it all: How differently this all could have played out.

Jagr spent most of his morning session sharing some trademark tortured logic to explain why he chose the Flyers over the Penguins, and it only renewed my belief that the only way he would have come back would have been if Mario Lemieux and Ray Shero had offered the largest paycheck.

This time, he was fretting over possibly playing on the Penguins' third or fourth lines and other nonsense about the team promising a spot on its top two lines to Tyler Kennedy.

"I didn't know how I was going to play," Jagr said. "In Philly, it was totally different — a lot of young guys, nobody had anything guaranteed."

It only added to a long list of similarly ludicrous explanations.

I'll repeat what I wrote back then: This was about the money.

The Penguins and Detroit Red Wings both offered $2 million, and both probably offered a better chance at the Stanley Cup, for that matter. But the Flyers checked in at $3.3 million, and a guy who already had collected $102 million over his career and still chased the extra pennies on his dollar. It's always been money first with him -- three years in Siberia, anyone? -- and it was this time, too.

I asked Jagr point-blank yesterday if he'd thought before signing with the Flyers about how the Penguins — and no other team — might have retired his No. 68 or even built a statue if he'd returned.

"Yes, I understand what you think. I agree with it," he answered. "Anybody guarantee me that I was going to play on the top two lines? Or I was going to play at all on this team? Did anybody guarantee me that? I feel like the best chance I was going to play and feel more comfortable was Philly."

It sure looked that way last night. And that's fine. Jagr has a right to set his own priorities, as well as his own pleasures.

As reporters broke up the pack last night, Jagr shouted to the local types, "I still love you guys!"

Broad Street Bully grin.

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