Long before he became a charming cult hero, Jaromir Jagr was the NHL’s No. 1 villain.
He was probably the best player in the world at that point in 2001 â€” the first since Wayne Gretzky to lead the league in scoring for four years straight â€” but also appeared to turn his back on the Pittsburgh Penguins. What followed were the lost years of a Hall of Fame career, a period of frustration, disappointment, big money and turmoil with the Washington Capitals.
“I guarantee if you talk to Jaromir he would admit that was kind of a rough time in his life, a rough time in his career,” said Tim Hunter, a former assistant coach with the Capitals.
Looking back now as he celebrates his 45th birthday, Jagr feels the need to set the record straight on at least one thing: he never wanted to leave Pittsburgh.
He concluded, though, that the organization’s best chance for success amid worrying financial duress was trading him and his big contract that summer. He also knew that with superstar Mario Lemieux sticking around, Mellon Arena would be full every night and thought it important that the club find a way to hold onto the talented players like Robert Lang, Martin Straka and Alexei Kovalev.
That wouldn’t happen if he remained. Nor would a trade happen unless he asked Craig Patrick, the club’s general manager and someone Jagr said, “was like a father to me”.
“If I didn’t tell him I wanted to be traded … then he wouldn’t have traded me,” recalled Jagr, who turns 45 Wednesday. “It was for the team. Obviously it was the wrong thing â€” because everybody thinks I wanted to leave.”
At the time Jagr, now a member of the Florida Panthers, said he was stung by questions about “heart” following a poor playoff run that spring. He voiced his preference for a fresh start with the New York Rangers.
That didn’t stop Ted Leonsis from insisting that his team’s general manager George McPhee pursue a deal. Less than two years into his term as the Capitals owner, Leonsis saw in Jagr a splash who could re-invigorate the sleepy Washington sports scene. Michael Jordan would come out of retirement a few months later to join the NBA’s Wizards.
Despite the insistence of his owner, McPhee thought the Capitals odds of landing Jagr were low. The late June draft in Florida passed with no chatter between his team and the Penguins, but a few days after that he heard from Patrick and the two sides agreed to a deal which sent spare parts to Pittsburgh for the 1999 Hart Trophy winner.
A few months later the Capitals locked Jagr into what was then the biggest contract in NHL history: seven years and US$77 million.
The Czech star picked up two points in his first game with the Caps, a 6-1 win over New Jersey, but it was evident early that the flashy new addition might be a difficult sell for head coach Ron Wilson’s team-first concept. Hunter, who’s now the head coach of the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors, thought Jagr was “kind of on his own program” and struggled to fit in with the group.
His gigantic new contract was proving a distraction with teammates too.
“It didn’t sit well with them that they’re there and they’re plugging away and following the game plan and being good soldiers and this guy just waltzes in and gets a seven-year, $77-million contract,” said Hunter, who called the deal “one of the worst things” for Jagr’s career at that point.
Jagr, who declined a phone interview request for this story but agreed to answer email questions submitted by The Canadian Press, said that while Leonsis clearly wanted him in D.C., Wilson did not.
Hunter described the transition to Washington as “social economic whiplash” for Jagr, who had learned to do things a different way alongside Lemieux in Pittsburgh.
“They kind of let them rule the roost there,” Hunter said.
“Mario would come out for practice when he wanted and he would leave when he wanted and then Jaromir started to get into that. They didn’t wear their helmet. They didn’t wear their shoulder pads. They just went out there and went through the motions and they did what they wanted. They played the game hard and they played the game, but they got away with a lot because they were so skilled and had so many skilled players.”
Peter Bondra roomed with Jagr in those days and believed him to be a quality teammate who only wanted what was best for the Caps. Still, he suspected Jagr wasn’t keen on coming to Washington at first and as a long-time superstar, tended to have his own ideas on things like the power play.
McPhee thought Jagr disrupted the harmony of a man advantage that previously centered itself around the tremendous passing skills of Adam Oates and powerful shots of Bondra and defenceman Sergei Gonchar.
The Washington power play remained elite, but the club got worse, missing the playoffs entirely in Jagr’s first season. Wilson, who coached the Capitals to the 1998 Stanley Cup final, was fired and replaced by Bruce Cassidy, who was then dismissed himself the following season.
Jagr’s reputation, already damaged from those disappointing final days in Pittsburgh, took another hit as the “coach killer” label attached itself amid declining production. Jagr averaged only 78 points in two full seasons with Washington after averaging 112 in his final four campaigns with the Penguins.
“Everyone expected the same number of points that I had in Pittsburgh,” Jagr said. “It was just a different team, with a different style, different players and different coaches. I was never going to put up as many points as in Pittsburgh.”
It wasn’t just the production, his lowest in years. There were also off-ice distractions with reports of gambling debts â€” which Jagr addressed in 2003, saying he made “mistakes” but that everything had been settled years earlier â€” and a 2003 payment of more than $3 million to the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid taxes from 2001.
Capitals management took the whole experience as a lesson that it was better to build around young players and draft picks than expensive superstars in free agency. They traded Jagr to the Rangers in January 2004, his Washington tenure lasting less than 200 games including the playoffs.
“It seems like a simple thing that you could just add a star player to your lineup and the lineup’s going to be better, but you learn it’s more about team construction than quality of the player you’re bringing in,” McPhee said.
“I don’t think there’s anyone to fault or blame,” he added. “It was a good try that didn’t work.”
After four seasons in New York â€” which included a 123-point campaign and return to dominance â€” Jagr shocked the hockey world by departing for the upstart Kontinental Hockey League. He came back to the NHL three years later and charmed the league with his retro mullet, storied midnight skates and rave reviews of leadership.
McPhee, now the GM of the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights, believes Jagr evolved into the perfect role model for young players, a living embodiment of the commitment required for a long career.
“I don’t think he’s being facetious when he says he wants to play until 50. He can do it,” McPhee said, noting Jagr’s almost incomparable puck protection skills. “His role might be minimized a little bit. But could he be playing on someone’s third or fourth line at that age and give them 8-10 minutes of good hockey and hanging onto the puck? I think he could.”
Jagr’s point production has fallen off somewhat this season in Florida, but he remains on pace for close to 50 points with superb underlying numbers.
“He’s not playing because somebody decided to push him to get a record or whatever the goal might be,” Bondra said, referring to Jagr’s rise into second place, behind only Gretzky, on the NHL’s all-time scoring list. “No, he’s there for a reason and he makes a difference in the game.”
The third-oldest player in league history â€” trailing only Gordie Howe and Chris Chelios â€” Jagr says he enjoys the game now more than he once did, stressing the word “enjoy” in particular.
“I enjoyed it back then too, but there was more pressure,” Jagr said. “I felt pressure to be the guy, to be the best player in the world. Now, at my age, I just want to be the best that I can be.”
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press