October 29, 2008
If you have a good chunk of time to dedicate for a great piece of sports journalism, please do dedicate it to Andrew Meier's New York Times Play Magazine piece called "Score Another One for Putin," which focuses on the KHL, on its potential and specifically on former Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers star Jaromir Jagr.
A few general reactions to the piece:
• Meier writes, "In its inaugural season, the K.H.L. has already raised expectations at home and fears in the United States." Reading this in the New York Times, which has done more than any other publication in North America to both promote and legitimize the KHL as either a competitive equal or potential global successor to the NHL, was both ironic and, I suppose, expected.
• Meier writes, "Instead of Russian players moving only west, N.H.L. players - many but by no means all of them Russian - are heading east. In 2001, 77 Russians played in the N.H.L. Now the number is 26."
First, any celebration of non-Russian players migrating to the KHL is obviously laughable, because we're talking about Ray Emery and Jon Klemm here. Meier mentions Kobe Bryant's "you cut the check, and I'll bring my Nikes" quip about playing in Russia to support this meme; that's a bit disingenuous, because there hasn't been a single North American-born hockey star that's floated the idea of going to the KHL.
But more to the point: The decline of Russian players in the NHL has much more to do with the League's dedication to "cost certainty" and inability to craft international player transfer agreements than anything the KHL has done. It's self-inflicted, if anything.
• There is one mention of the late Alexei Cherepanov, Jagr's teammate on Omsk, with a parenthetical notation of his tragic death. This is not Meier's fault, obviously, because the story is reported when it's reported. But to many observers, this was a game-changer for the KHL's momentum and North American inroads.
• And then there's Jagr, who has some rather striking things to say about the culture of celebrity in the U.S. and in Russia. But can his statements be considered anti-American?
Here's the money passage from Meier, riding with Jagr:
As we cross over the broad Irtysh River, Russian pop fills the car, and I'm struck by an unlikely conclusion: Jagr is at home in Omsk, a city the size of Dallas but with all the luster of Albany. The team has found him an apartment (which he shares with his 22-year-old Czech girlfriend) and he loves it more than the rental he had in Trump Tower. Not that he had a problem in New York, he says. He never suffered the pressure, nor the press. "For hockey players, New York's not that bad," he says as we cruise past Lenin Square, where a statue of Lenin still stands. "Because you've got the Yankees, you got baseball and American football. Hockey? Maybe it's No. 5 in popularity. After fishing."
(Ed. Note: "After fishing?" Someone's been watching Versus!)
"Here, it's not like in the U.S.," Jagr says at a different point. "You got such freedom, it's hard to believe. In the U.S. you have so many rules, everything's regulated and structured. When you make a mistake you pay for it - a lot." It is a theme that Jagr returns to often, the freedom of this strange place. It is not so much that his departure from New York has left a disquieting wake, but that he has discovered the unlikely and unexpected promise of Siberia. "Look at A-Rod," he says. "No matter how well you do - they always want more. Expectations only climb higher. In Russia you don't have to worry if you make a mistake. And that's what I love about living here. There's always another way to make up for it. Nothing's too serious. Nothing is a problem, and at the same time, everything's a problem. But somehow no matter how bad things are, you can always work it out."
Jagr's an interesting case study in celebrity, because he's certainly one of the more publicly scrutinized players in recent NHL history by mainstream media: From the gambling scandal to the huge contract to the expectations of playing in Manhattan. You can count on one hand the number of his peers during his time in the League that played through that kind of intense spotlight in American media.
So it's no wonder that Jagr is happy in Russia. He's being lauded as an icon, as the cornerstone of a league that's attempting to reaffirm national pride through sport. And he is playing his game without scrutiny or invasion or privacy or any of the other myopic headaches of playing in the U.S.
Were these comments anti-American? I do think they are a clear critique of American culture and media. But as Eric McErlain pointed out on FanHouse, via an old Sports Illustrated article, Jagr has always had an admiration for the U.S. -- even if he's soured on our restricted "freedom." So I think they're anti-American culture, but wouldn't go as far as to say they're anti-American.
The Slap Shot blog has a summary review of Jagr's statements and of Slava Fetisov's "sorry, too late" lines about the NHL in Europe.
What it doesn't have, and neither does Meier's article on the KHL, is one rather important fact about Jagr and the new Russian League he's leading to glory:
They were his clear second choice.
This article was one or two Glen Sather contract concessions from never happening. Jagr wanted to play in the NHL, and he wanted to be a New York Ranger. As Ken Campbell of The Hockey New wrote:
But from this corner, the KHL has done nothing but prove it can be a home for NHL castoffs, Jagr included. Prior to the free agent market opening July 1, Jagr made it clear to the New York Rangers that he very much wanted to return to the NHL, but the Rangers would not meet his contract demands in salary and term and didn't seem to have much trouble parting with him.
And on the same day when teams seemed intent on throwing millions of dollars at marginal players, not one of the league's 30 teams, including the Rangers, stepped up and made him a legitimate offer. Doesn't sound like much of a coup to me.
Me neither. So for all the freedom, all the adoration, all the pride Jagr exudes while starring in Russia and vowing never to return to North America, please remember that his first choice was to carry the Stanley Cup with the Rangers rather than the torch for the KHL.
As it is, we imagine, for many other Russian and non-Russian hockey stars.