By Pierre LeBrun
THE CANADIAN PRESS
An emotionally-drained Jaromir Jagr believes his decision to leave the NHL was the most difficult in his career. Yet the right one.
"It wasn’t an easy decision," the star winger told The Canadian Press in a phone interview Friday. "It was the toughest decision in my life, hockey-wise. …
"It was a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be," he added. "No question about it. I hate making changes."
The 36-year-old Czech signed a "letter of intent" with Avangard Omsk of the Continental Hockey League around 3 a.m. ET Friday, according to his agent Pat Brisson.
While Brisson and Jagr both refused to provide contract details, it’s believed the deal is for two years plus an option for a third, and will pay Jagr around US$7 million tax-free — the equivalent of around $11 million a season in the NHL.
Jagr played in Omsk during the 2004-05 NHL lockout and enjoyed his experience.
"Don’t forget I’m from Europe," said Jagr. "Russia is nothing new for me. It’s close to the Czech Republic. It would be different for American or Canadian players but for me, I enjoy it. The people love hockey and I had a great time out there."
For the upstart Russian league, the signing will be a huge victory in its attempt to lure NHL stars. Whether they can attract star players before their twilight years is another matter.
And it’s clear that if an NHL team had met Jagr’s request in term, he might be playing in North America next season. Jagr had hoped for a three-year deal that would bridge that gap to his planned return to his native Kladno, where his father is set to open a new arena with his son playing for the local club.
"I wanted to go home in three years so I was looking for a three-year contract if I wanted to stay here," said Jagr. "But it looks like with the new CBA, it’s tough for older guys to sign long-term contracts because teams are worried you’re going to get injured or retire and they’re stuck with the salary on the salary cap."
As Jagr pointed out, the CBA stipulates that players 35 and over have their full contracts count against the salary cap even if the player retires midway through or gets hit by a bus.
"So it was too tough for any team to sign me to a three-year contract," said Jagr. "But I didn’t want to do a one-year deal because I didn’t want to go through the same thing again next summer. Because I really didn’t enjoy this."
Pittsburgh, Edmonton and the Rangers are believed to be the three teams that had the most interest in Jagr. All of them offered one-year deals.
"I want to thank all the teams that still believed in me and still made an offer," said Jagr. "Edmonton was probably the biggest offer I got. It was a great offer, to be honest with you."
While Jagr refused to say — "I don’t want to get into that" — it’s believed Edmonton offered a one-year deal worth around $8 million.
"I wish them good luck and thanks to (GM) Kevin Lowe and the new owner," said Jagr. "It wasn’t an easy decision."
Jagr had a chat with Glen Sather on Thursday when the Rangers GM said he could no longer wait around for No. 68.
Markus Naslund was coming in and that meant Jagr was no longer a Ranger.
"I’m thankful for the three years I had in New York," said Jagr. "They were great years. I understand that I’m older and the team decided to go in a different direction because they couldn’t get the deal done.
"I will never say one bad word against the Rangers organization or Glen. They were great to me. And I’m not lying when I say that, it’s really how I feel. They were always great to me."
A retrospective Jagr, who swayed between emotion and laughter during the interview, said he wished things could have worked out better during his three years in Washington.
He felt bad for Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.
"If I ever have a chance to talk to Ted Leonsis, I would try to explain everything to him," said Jagr. "I tried my best but it just didn’t work. It’s not like I didn’t try, it just didn’t work. He spent a lot of money to get me there to Washington and for whatever reason I just didn’t play the way they expected me to play."
Offered the chance to the end the interview, Jagr first wanted to finish his thoughts. He had a blast during two decades in the NHL and will miss it.
"The NHL gave me an opportunity to play hockey," he said, sounding like he was swallowing hard. "`And I played with so many great players. Especially in Pittsburgh with Mario (Lemieux) and Ron Francis and Bryan Trottier and Paul Coffey — all those great players. I had a chance to learn hockey from them. I was very lucky.
"Probably the luckiest year was when I was 18 years old and came to the Pittsburgh Penguins," continued Jagr. "It’s not only about winning the Cup but it’s about the players that won the Cup. They players on that team worked so hard to win that Cup. When you’re a young guy and you see how hard the older guys work, you feel bad if you don’t do that with them. They taught me everything — on the ice and off the ice."
Jagr began his NHL career in 1990 and played for the Penguins, Capitals and the Rangers. In 1,273 NHL games, he had 1,599 points on 646 goals and 953 assists. He won five Art Ross Trophies as the NHL’s leading scorer and will be a slam dunk candidate for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But as Jagr pointed out, it may not be the last we’ve seen of him in North America.
"Maybe I will see you in Vancouver in 2010," Jagr said, referring to the Olympic Games.
And it wouldn’t be an interview with Jaromir Jagr without a laugh. He grumbled that his off-season has been cut short.
"Unfortunately the seasons in Europe start two months earlier than here," he said chuckling. "I have to get ready for the season now."