Those who might question whether Jaromir Jagr is the biggest free agent signing in Calgary Flames history obviously don’t live in Calgary.
They obviously haven’t seen any of the thousands of red No. 68 jerseys dotting the city already. They haven’t heard the excitement in the voices of his new teammates, or seen the bounce in the 45-year-old’s step as he giddily returns to the game he’s dominated for 27 years.
They haven’t reacted to today’s news Jagr will make his debut in Los Angeles tonight with a fist-pump, followed by furious texts to friends with plans to set aside everything to watch.
They haven’t shaken hands or posed for a selfie with the mullet-toting Travelling Jagrs, whose admiration of “the European Gretzky” is now shared by a city that needed something to rally around.
The arena situation looks dire, the mayoralty race is daunting, the economy is still sagging and the future is further clouded by news an important pipeline has been victimized by politicians out East. Again.
A lackluster 2-5 pre-season had locals worried the team would get off to yet another slow start and fans wondered aloud if a 35-year-old goaltender would be able to shoulder the load on a team that appears poised to contend if only a Miikka Kiprusoff-like figure emerges.
And then, after months of rumours and wishful thinking, Flames general manager Brad Treliving gives the city something almost as refreshing as a Rocky mountain sunset. He caps off months of quiet talks by inking Jagr to a one-year, $1 million deal to plug a hole on the right side of a third line none of the organization’s youngsters appeared ready for.
Will the game’s second-leading scorer of all-time have much of an impact offensively?
Few expect so, although anything close to last year’s 16 goals and 46 points in Florida would be a coup for a man making only slightly more than the league minimum. Even if not, what he’s added to the organization without even stepping into the lineup has been invaluable.
Young leaders like Matthew Tkachuk, Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Sam Bennett are jacked up about learning whatever they can from the five-time NHL scoring champ. A residual benefit is that the team’s young core will spend the year shielded from the scrutiny that generally comes with being the cornerstones of a Canadian club.
Although he’s expected to be little more than a role player on the third line and second power play unit, Jagr is now the face of the franchise. He will be the first player the media in every city will want to interview, which will be a welcome change for the likes of Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie, Gaudreau and Monahan.
Worries that Jagr’s rock-star status would see him take over a dressing room that already had solid leadership under Mark Giordano have been replaced by relief the animated Czech star is here to lighten the mood.
Case in point: At Saturday night’s home opener the Flames trailed Winnipeg 3-1 after playing their fourth-straight period of punchless hockey. And while hockey players have been trained to mope around when things aren’t going well, there was Jagr having a blast with the Travelling Jagrs during an in-house intermission interview he crashed. The video went viral, the fans went nuts and the team went on a five-goal run that turned a potentially horrid start around with a 6-3 win.
Imagine, a player unabashedly having fun with the fans, joking, “I’m going to try to play, but if I’m no good, I’ll stay here all year and party.”
Not that there’s a correlation but the Flames are now on a two-game streak, which includes winning their first game in Anaheim in 13 years Monday.
The entire hockey world is excited to see Jagr’s debut, but the anticipation in Calgary is off the charts as fans check their twitter feeds every morning for news on his status.
Tonight they’ll get their wish when he’ll suit up in Los Angeles alongside Bennett and Kris Versteeg on the third line.
Hockey needs Jagr. Make that, hockey needs more characters like Jagr.
In a hockey culture in which beige is the new black, he seems to understand above all else that hockey is in the entertainment business. On and off the ice, he’s never failed to deliver on that front. Part of the added excitement in town stems from the foreign feeling of his arrival.
Calgary has never been a destination for free agents with any sort of star status, which is why some believe Jagr jersey sales in Calgary will more than pay for his contract (and potential $1 million in bonuses.)
The biggest free agent signing before Jagr would have been inking Jay Bouwmeester in 2009 after Darryl Sutter traded for negotiating rights to the then-25-year-old star defenceman.
In a small market city that has never been able to compete for significant free agents, the reality has long been that Calgary is a city where the big boys generally leave for greener pastures and more greenbacks.
The departures of Al MacInnis, Theo Fleury, Joe Nieuwendyk and Mike Vernon all essentially revolved around money the Flames couldn’t afford to pay.
Although Jagr is 45 and nowhere near the player he once was, the belief in Calgary is he’s still more than just a novelty item. His impact has been felt all eight days since he arrived.
And Calgarians can be forgiven for treating it like it’s bigger than Stampede.