Jagr still smiling after all these years

Jaromir Jagr over the years. (Getty)

A lot of players, almost all far lesser, have more Stanley Cup rings than Jaromir Jagr’s pair, a couple of treasures both now more than 20 years old. A few players have more silverware than the five-time Art Ross Trophy winner, and they all reside in penthouse suites at the Hockey Hall of Fame. That Jagr won only one Hart Trophy must rank as an oversight—maybe he made the game look so easy and had so much fun that everyone started to take him for granted. A better measure: Jagr made the First NHL All-Star Team seven times, and among right-wingers, only Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard pulled the trick more often. That’s the company he keeps.

For many, the first thing that comes to mind with a mention of Jagr’s name is the spectacular goal he scored against Chicago in game one of the 1992 Stanley Cup final. He deked out Dirk Graham, Brent Sutter, Frantisek Kucera, Igor Kravchuk and Ed Belfour like so many pylons. That the goal tied the game with five minutes left in a last-second come-from-behind Penguins win was just added value. That Jagr was only 20 made it all the more remarkable.

Still, that’s not my favourite Jaromir Jagr moment. No, for me that came away from the spotlight. In fact, not even in an arena. It was one of those you-had-to-be-there moments.

It was 1996. The Penguins were in the conference final and had lost game one to the Florida Panthers at the Igloo. It couldn’t have been a more dispiriting loss, thus it was a bit of a surprise that none of the Pens were on the ice for morning skate before game two. Pittsburgh’s coach had an explanation for both the poor showing in game one and the decision to cancel the skate—there was a terrible case of stomach flu running through the team. Those clinging to life, he explained, were “the big guys”: Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Petr Nedved and Neil Wilkinson. This was a notable development, and not just because it’s the only time journeyman defenceman Wilkinson has been mentioned in the same breath as the other three.

I sought out a second source for this bit of news and luckily enough it was at that point, about noon, that Jagr pulled into the Igloo’s parking lot in his convertible with the top down. That by itself was a little odd, but given that Pittsburgh was in the middle of a searing heat wave it was possibly explicable: Maybe his ride’s climate control was on the fritz. What was more curious, though, was that Jagr had no shirt on and was sunburned to a radiant goal-light crimson.

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I asked Jagr about the night’s game—avoiding his stomach flu, which seemed a bit of a conversation killer. Jagr took all questions in stride, a show of real courage considering his delicate condition, I thought. Finally, when he was about to go into the fairly frigid Igloo bare-chested and in flip-flops, I asked him about the flu. Short-term memory loss must have been a side effect of the bug because he needed some prompting. “If coach says I have the flu, I have the flu,” he said and away he walked, his abundant tresses bobbing as he laughed, a true profile in courage. Who among the game’s greatest players would be willing to take one for the team if the one were the stomach flu?

That night, the legitimately afflicted Lemieux set up Jagr for a power-play marker that made the difference in a one-goal win for the Penguins.

Others can have their rings and trophies and whatever else. No one had more fun than Jaromir Jagr did, and when he retires the league will be poorer for it. Given that he scored 24 goals for the Devils last season, his best since he returned to the NHL from his stint in Russia, reports that this is Jagr’s final year should be trusted only as much as a coach alerting the public to a viral epidemic on game day.

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