In the end, we all forgot that fixating one’s mind on Jaromir Jagr is like fixating one’s eyes on the sun. It’s a pleasing sight at first, but after a while, it’s bad for one’s optical health.
Although Pittsburgh offered a 1 year deal believed to be worth $2-million, Jagr signed a $3.3-million, 1 year contract with the Philadelphia Flyers last Friday in a surprising turn of events that left many in Pittsburgh feeling betrayed. After all, hadn’t Jagr declared openly that he wanted to “make things right by Mario [Lemieux]“? The city of Pittsburgh was ready to embrace Jagr who from his rookie season as an 18-year old in 1990 until his acrimonious departure in 2001, won a Hart Trophy. five scoring titles and two Stanley Cups. Jagr seemed ready to return the warm feelings, especially toward his former mentor, teammate and current Penguins’ co-owner, Lemieux.
Yet roughly a half hour after the unrestricted free agent signing period opened, the Pens’ arch-rival announced that they had secured Jagr’s services for 2011-12. How could this be? Hadn’t his agent, Petr Svoboda told everyone as late as the middle of last week that Jagr’s “heart is in Pittsburgh”?
In retrospect, once the “deadline” for making his decision came and passed last Wednesday with nary a word from Jagr or communication on when he was actually going to decide, the signs of rejection and disappointment started to bloom like ugly weeds in Pittsburgh. Yet when one wants to rekindle an old relationship very badly, ugly weeds are ignored, brushed aside, glossed over, in a pathetic, naive pursuit of nostalgia. Just Jagr being Jagr, hopeful Penguins’ fans chuckled, apologizing for his inconsiderate dithering. Ominously on Thursday night, on the eve of July 1, reports surfaced that Jagr was actually still in talks with other teams. He just wants to make it more dramatic, messing around with other teams! … Tomorrow he’ll stand on the podium with Mario and tell us how he turned down 5 or 6 much richer offers to come back home!
Just an hour before noon on Friday, the Pens’ braintrust had had enough and formally withdrew their offer, realizing that Jagr in 2011 was hardly different than the desultory, petulant Jagr of 2001 who begged out of Pittsburgh after the season ended. He still has little regard for other people’s time and deadlines, preferring to work on his schedule alone and seems not to understand the importance of words and implied meanings. By no means is this a criticism of his grasp of English. Maybe Jagr is telling the truth when he said that he took a discount to sign in Philadelphia or that his analysis of all the talent on potential clubs he wanted to join pointed to closing a deal with the Flyers.
Yet the fact remains: in 2001, in a season that should have filled him with happiness when Lemieux came out of retirement, Jagr occasionally gave less than maximum effort on the ice and infamously griped about “dying alive” in Pittsburgh until he was traded to Washington. Recently, he left overwhelming hints over the past three years, as far back as the winter of 2008-09 when he joined the KHL, that he would one day like to resume his career in the NHL with Pittsburgh. When that type of talk intensified over the past two weeks, any objective person, giving Jagr the benefit of the doubt and taking him at his word, would conclude that Pittsburgh would be his ultimate destination. Why preheat the oven, if you’re not going to cook the roast? Why give someone your word, when you have no intention of honouring it?
So it has come to this: Jaromir Jagr enters his age 40 season (his birthday will be on February 15), back in the NHL after a three-year sojourn in Russia, thrust back into the world of the 82-game schedule and harder-hitting opponents. He will skate for a Philadelphia team that has been completely overhauled since another disappointing playoff exit, but still expected to contend for the Stanley Cup. Jagr will be counted on, in part, to replace some of the lost goal scoring in Philadelphia after Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were both shipped out.
Jagr has set the bar high by accepting a lofty challenge in his return to the NHL. Three times in his introductory conference call, he said “I don’t know,” when asked if he could flourish again in North America. “I don’t know. There’s no guarantees. I hope so. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have come here.”
“I don’t know,” he continued, comparing his play from his last NHL stint in 2008 to now. “You’d have to ask somebody else who saw me years ago and then saw me last month. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Amidst the uncertainty, like mythical Icarus, Jagr has flown back to the NHL from the Czech Republic on wings of hubris, on a flight path straight toward the sun, craving the attention, the sharp illumination of his existence. Time will tell whether he will once again bask successfully in its glow or melt down and be humbled under the white-hot lights of the world’s premier hockey league.
About the Author: Adrian Fung (@PenguinsMarch) contributes game reports, opinions, analysis and features, mostly about the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has covered the World Hockey Summit, Kraft Hockeyville, World Junior Championship exhibition games, CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, MasterCard Memorial Cup and NHL Rookie Tournament for Hockey Independent. twitter.com/PenguinsMarch