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Looking back on Jagr trade: Starkey from '01

| Friday, April 25, 2008

"I won't grow up." - Peter Pan

"I was born to have fun all the time." - Jaromir Jagr

The following story by Joe Starkey is from July 13, 2001, two days after the trade that sent Jaromir Jagr from the Penguins to the Washington Capitals.

It's a cold November day in Boston. The Penguins are trudging through a miserable practice at the Fleet Center, 13 hours after losing to the Bruins.

Suddenly, the skating stops. All eyes turn toward team captain Jaromir Jagr, who is scolding linemate Jan Hrdina. Jagr is shouting in Czech, whacking his stick on the ice to emphasize his points. This goes on for several minutes.

You don't need to know Czech to know that Jagr has stepped way out of bounds - and that nobody is trying to stop him.

That fairly describes his final four seasons in Pittsburgh.

Everyone from the men who signed his checks to the men who chronicled his career to the boys who cleaned his jersey would look the other way when Jagr arrived late, left early or simply blew the whole thing off.

"That's Jags," they'd say.

"That's Jags," they'd write.

After that practice in Boston, the players made excuses for their captain. Jagr wouldn't talk about the incident. He was slumping and was in no mood to answer questions.

"Do you want to go in my mind right now?" he said. "Leave me alone, you understand?"

The Hrdina incident was reported in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. A few weeks later in Toronto, Jagr confronted the reporter who wrote the story. The following conversation occurred:

Jagr: "Did you write what happened with Janny?"

Reporter: "Yes."

Jagr: "Why did you do that?"

Reporter: "Because I saw it."

Jagr: "Do you know what they're doing to me back there (in the Czech Republic)• They're crucifying me. They say I yell at the players, I hit the players. I didn't read it, but they are telling me it's you."

Reporter: "I can't control what they do with it."

Jagr: "You don't understand. I wish you could stand in my shoes once and know what it's like. You don't understand."

Very few people understand Jagr. He seems to prefer it that way. To understand him would be to know him, and he does not seem willing to tolerate that.

"I don't trust anybody," Jagr once told me. "I was born with that. It's very tough in this world to find somebody you can trust. I test them more than once."

Jagr's wariness is understandable. His mistrust runs deep, all the way back to 1948, long before his birth, when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. Jagr's grandfather had his land stolen by the Communists and was thrown in jail. He died in 1968, four years before Jagr was born.

Then there is the language barrier. People forget that Jagr arrived in the United States at 18, unable to speak English. He still struggles to convey his feelings accurately.

But you hope that as a man grows up, he learns to open up, too. Jagr did the opposite. He closed down. By the time last season ended, he was like a rock star who had alienated himself from his band. He was alone, insulated by the outsiders with whom he surrounded himself.

Nobody seemed to understand why Jagr was so unhappy. He was a multi-millionaire in spite of his stock-market losses. He had a model girlfriend, the former Miss Slovakia. He was young, rich and famous.

As if any or all of those things could cure a man's loneliness.

Mario Jr.

Former Penguins coach Kevin Constantine used to marvel at Jagr's intelligence. Jagr would appear to be daydreaming during strategy sessions but could recount the lesson better than any of his teammates.

Nobody questions Jagr's intelligence. He is smart. He is very funny, too. But he is stubborn and ultra-sensitive. Nobody tells him what to do. Nobody knows better than him.

Certainly not his coaches. He undermined Constantine and his staff. By the end of Constantine's tenure, Jagr didn't even speak to them. Within weeks, he was driving Herb Brooks up a wall. He trashed Ivan Hlinka's system a month into the season.

Make no mistake, Jagr's attitude had plenty to do with the Penguins trading him. It was more than merely a financial move. Lemieux couldn't have known the extent of Jagr's spiral until he came out of retirement and re-established residence in the dressing room.

Had Lemieux found an exemplary captain, a player who wanted to finish his days in Pittsburgh, a player with the unmatched drive of a young Jaromir Jagr, he might have found a way to keep Jagr on the Penguins' payroll forever, as he once promised.

That is not what Lemieux found. His relationship with Jagr grew strained.

But no matter how that relationship might have changed in the past few months, Lemieux and Jagr are forever bound.

Mario and Mario Jr. Two once-in-a-lifetime talents, one the other's idol. Some people like to blame Jagr's freefall on Lemieux's example. They say Jagr simply copied Lemieux and was unfairly ripped.

In certain instances, that might be true. Ultimately, it fails as an explanation for Jagr's implosion.

Yes, Jagr was given much of the same freedoms that Lemieux enjoyed. But if he had truly copied Lemieux, he would have exercised his power more wisely. He would used more tact. He would have taken his beefs with teammates or coaches behind closed doors. Not out in the open. Not where the bullets fly.

Many superstar athletes are given keys to the franchise and a voice in important decisions. Magic Johnson had it. So did Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Lemieux.

Those men used that privilege to their advantage, with an eye toward winning. Jagr abused it. His power constantly backfired, and he failed to see that it was himself pulling the trigger.

When Jagr was named captain four years ago, he convinced people that he could change. That he could grow up. He almost pulled it off. One media type labeled him "Ghandi." For a while, the change seemed real. Sports Illustrated ran the story of a spiritually enlightened Jagr, photographed among the trees.

Reporters described him as congenial by nature. The ultimate captain. A real team guy. The true story of changed man.

Fact is, Jagr couldn't change. He hasn't grown up, and there is no shame in that. Many of us struggle with the same issue. Jagr never addressed it, though. He couldn't bear the truth.

Jagr should have insisted on giving Lemieux the 'C' for captain when Lemieux returned. Jagr had long ago lost the privilege - even before he asked to be traded in November.

By the end, he was like a college graduate who'd lived with his parents way too long. He was a 29-year-old child in a man's body.

Offensive machine

The miracle was that in the midst of his deepest funks, Jagr still could make the sorts of plays that prompted people to label him the greatest player in the world. And even if he left Pittsburgh on a bitter note, he left an album full of treasured snapshots.

A few from my album:

• It is September, 1997. Jagr is sitting alone in the dressing room at Southpointe. He proceeds to deliver one of the most heartfelt interviews of his career:

Question: Do reporters make you angry?

Jagr: "If you talk to reporters, they like to have questions be serious and be about something. I don't like that kind of stuff. I like to joke around all the time, and sometimes what I say I don't mean. Ninety percent of the time I'm just joking around. Life is a joke for me, I would say."

Question: Don't you think that if someone saw your last statement in print, they would say, "This guy isn't serious."

Jagr: "I don't give a (crap). That's the way I am. A lot of people want to be serious all the time. I was born to have fun all the time. When it's the game, I take it serious. That's serious business."

Question: Do you care what people think of you?

Jagr: "Of course I care what other people think, but there are hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. and many other millions around the world. I'd say if you satisfy 60 percent of those people, or at least the ones you know, that's pretty good. A lot of people are jealous. They say a lot of bad things about you just to hurt you. That's every day."

Question: People have told me your parents are strong people. Did that in turn make you a strong person?

Jagr: "I don't think I'm a strong person. I try to be. I'm not. I just act that way. I've got too much feeling to be a tough person. I gotta act like I do, because a lot of people will take advantage of me and hurt me. Sometimes you gotta be mean. I know it's not me, but it has to be that way. I just have to act tough or whatever. Be cocky."

• Two years later, in the very same dressing room, Jagr is in his manic mode. Angry over a story or some other such thing, he disappears to the back. A few minutes later, he reappears with a large, framed portrait of himself. He hands it to me and says, "You need to take this home and pray to it."

• In the spring of 1999, Jagr delivered two of the greatest performances in Penguins history.

In March, he batted the puck out of mid-air, past Flyers goalie Ron Hextall, while sliding on his stomach.

A month later, he made like Willis Reed with his dramatic return from a groin injury in Game 6 against the New Jersey Devils. He scored the tying goal late in the regulation, the winner in overtime. Who could forget Jagr standing toe-to-toe with Devils defenseman Scott Stevens, yelling in his face as the referee stood ready to drop the puck?

It was performances like that where Jagr showed the kind of passionate leadership he was capable of. What a great captain he could have been.

• In September of 1997, I peaked into the equipment room and saw Jagr diving on the floor, playing stick hockey with the coaches' sons. Nothing could touch him there. He was in a state of pure joy, laughing and making the boys laugh along with him. Somewhere in the next four years, the joy was lost.

Maybe Jagr will find it in Washington.

And maybe he'll finally grow up. Additional Information:

Gigapan Interactives

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