Kovacevic: A confession: Jagr was right
VOORHEES, N.J. — Jaromir Jagr was right.
For all else that will pain Pittsburgh's passionate hockey fans once the Penguins complete their epic collapse in these Stanley Cup playoffs, either Wednesday night in Game 4 or later this week, nothing should cut deeper than those four words.
Jagr was right, and we were wrong.
Well, I was wrong, speaking for myself.
It was just last summer, amid all the fuss of "Jagr Watch" and folks staking out Pittsburgh International with dusted-off No. 68 sweaters and turtles delaying his flight out of JFK and endless nonsense from loopy agent Petr Svoboda, that I criticized Jagr once he signed with the Flyers.
In this space on July 2, 2011, the day after Jagr accepted the Flyers' $3.3 million offer over the Penguins' $2 million, I called him greedy. Called him a mercenary. Pointed out that he'd amassed $101 million over his career and still went for the extra million.
"This wasn't about greener pastures," I wrote that day. "It was about going for the green."
I'll say it again: I was wrong.
Oh, sure, it can never be known what would have happened had the Penguins countered with, say, $4 million. Jagr might have looked at the whole scene — renewing his bond with the franchise, the city and Mario Lemieux — in a wholly different way.
But that part about greener pastures ... well, kind of hard to argue that now , isn't it?
The first three playoff games have powerfully illustrated that Philadelphia is the better team to this point, and there's also no question that the Flyers have been an exemplary fit for what he needed.
I spent some time with Jagr, whom I've known since 1997, after the Flyers' practice here last Wednesday, primarily for the purpose of fessing up. Told him what I wrote last summer, the terms I used, the whole deal.
Not surprisingly, he laughed.
"Well, what do you think now?" Jagr came back with a chuckle as he unlaced his skates. "For me, it was never about the money. If it was about the money, I could stay in Russia and make twice as much. I wanted to come to the NHL, play with great players and have the chance to win the Cup again. I'm very happy here."
Happier, no doubt, than he would have been in Pittsburgh.
Remember when Jagr wondered if the Penguins were "serious" about signing him?
That was legit. I have no doubt Lemieux and Dan Bylsma wanted it to happen. But I also have no doubt that general manager Ray Shero, who has every right to build his roster as he sees fit, really didn't. And Jagr acknowledged Wednesday for the first time that he sensed Shero's trepidation during the talks.
"For sure," Jagr said. "I knew there were some people there that wanted me, others who didn't. I know Mario did."
Remember when Jagr said he'd prefer playing with Claude Giroux over Sidney Crosby?
Oh, we howled at that one. Not anymore.
Giroux isn't Crosby. No one is. But Giroux raised his status to one of the game's unquestioned top five forwards with a 93-point season, shining as Jagr's centerman. The two also became good friends.
"He's a special player, a special kid," Jagr said.
Remember when Jagr worried he wouldn't have a spot on the Penguins' top two lines, or the first power-play unit?
We scoffed at that, too. But what would have become of Jagr once James Neal began busting out as a 40-goal sniper?
As for the power play ...
"They can't even have Sid on the power play," Jagr said, with the trademark devilish grin. "Where would they put me?"
Remember when we saw Jagr joining the rival Flyers as a direct shot at the Penguins?
Well, this was what he had to say about being up, 3-0, in this series against his former team and the city that boos him with each touch of the puck: "All I know is that I appreciate every time I'm on the ice. I don't know how many playoff games I have left in my career. If I'm happy about beating Pittsburgh — if we do — it's because they're the best team in the league. That's special."
Jagr is openly talking about coming back for another NHL season, and he's told the Flyers he'd prefer to stay put. I can see that happening, especially if he goes on to play a productive-mentor role similar to Mark Recchi's with the champion Bruins last spring.
I'm guessing No. 68 would happily take a third Cup over that statue outside Consol Energy Center.
It was the right call.
Game 3 Pens vs. Flyers 4/15/12
The Pittsburgh Penguins lose 8-4 against the Philadelphia Flyers, Sunday, April 15 at the Wells Fargo Center in Game 3 of their Stanley Cup playoff series.