December 15, 2008
Reading Jaromir Jagr's comments on current events in the NHL is rather confounding. On the one hand, he's an intensely interesting observer of the League, who spent 17 seasons watching the economic and competitive landscape change. On the other, he's an ex-pat shooting off about his former employer while attempting to build up a competitor overseas.
Still, there's no denying Jagr's insights are compelling, as anyone who consumed that Play magazine piece about the KHL can attest. Puck Daddy's official Russian comrade Dmitry Chesnokov -- of our landmark Alexander Semin interview, and another upcoming Q&A with an NHL Russian player -- sent over this translated conversation between Jagr and journalist Pavel Lysenkov last week that appeared in Sovetsky Sport.
It begins with a candid discussion about NHL finances, before Jagr offers some really fascinating thoughts about his New York Rangers teammate Sean Avery, whose career with the Dallas Stars came to an end yesterday following the "sloppy seconds" debacle.
Here's Lysenkov and Jagr:
Q. The NHL seems to have a more stable business model than the KHL that hasn't even been around for a year. Teams in North America depend on sponsors less. Even in the current economic crisis the arena in Chicago sells out, which did not happen often.
JAGR: "People go to see [the Chicago Blackhawks] because the team has attracted young stars like Kane and Toews, and not because people don't know what to do with their money. But if you look at Florida or Phoenix they have problems with attendance. That means that it all depends on how the team is performing. When tickets are $50 or $60 on average and each game draws 16-20 thousand spectators it is easy to have a stable business model. NHL teams have a lot of revenue from gate receipts. And I am not even talking about marketing, TV rights and other sources of income."
The Phoenix Coyotes management announced not long ago that the team will have losses of $25-$35 million. Does that mean that it's not all smooth in the NHL?
"How much? This is impossible! Look at the Phoenix payroll. It's not that much over $35 million. I would get it if no one in Arizona went to see hockey. But the team fills about half of the arena every game. It is possible that the Coyotes' management are making such statements intentionally to sell the team as soon as possible, or to move it to a different city. This is a kind of a threat to the authorities - if you don't help us we will take the team somewhere in Canada. And it will hurt the image of the city and will cause the fans to be upset. But this is the crisis, everyone saves themselves any way they can."
KHL teams' management, including Avangard Omsk President Konstantin Potapov, are saying that sooner or later player salaries might be slashed because of the economic crisis. You personally had your salary reduced in 2005 after the lockout in the NHL, when you were with the Rangers.
"The situation was different then. Communism suddenly took over the NHL. Everyone's salaries were reduced by 24%. "Equalization," or how do you say it here? Players who had long term deals before the lockout suffered the most, including me. Before, team owners thought that each team has to have one or two star players with big contracts who would attract fans to hockey. All other players were making relatively less. And now all the money was spread out. Most teams' budgets remained virtually the same. But now players from lower and middle lines can make more money because of the star players.
"When the new economic system was discussed at NHLPA meetings obviously most players voted in favor, because there are more average players than there are star players. I cannot say anything about reducing salaries in the KHL. Officially no one has announced anything. And I am not used to blindly believe everything that is in the media. I cannot even tell you for sure who represents Avangard Omsk in the players union. Dmitry Ryabykin? See... I came here to play hockey and not to deal with organizational issues."
Have you heard about the scandal in the NHL because of your former Rangers teammate Sean Avery?
"I heard that he said something about his ex who is now dating Calgary defenseman Dion Phaneuf. But what exactly did he say?"
I know. But I am not going to repeat that.
"Tell me, tell me!"
(Jagr is asking Lysenkov without even noticing that there is a female interpreter present. Lysenkov wrote Avery's words on a piece of paper.)
"What does that mean? Some kind of slang... I don't understand the translation... A used girl? You know what I think? I think if Avery was not in Canada, he wouldn't have said that. The guy was simply working the publicity. He tried to unsettle the opposing team players before the game."
He was disqualified for six games because of two words. This is unprecedented in the history of the NHL.
"No one else would have faced this. But Avery was punished for all of his old sins. You can say that he was punished for everything combined. This is a political decision by the NHL."
Dallas does not want him to play in the League and his teammates are recommending to have him sent to Russia for rehabilitation.
"I don't think he will be kicked out of the NHL because of the ethics standards. Not everyone there is such goody two-shoes. I would believe that the club is not happy with Avery's play and now stumbled upon a great chance to part ways.
"But you have to know Sean. Yes, he is a bad boy. But this is his image. It is all acting. In his soul he is a vulnerable and sentimental person. And Avery also loves confrontations and trouble. He likes to draw attention to himself. That's his life. Sean should have become an actor. He would have had a great career in Hollywood.
"But he is a good player. Believe me. He has speed, sense of the game, sees the net well - he has everything. In some games Avery was Rangers' best player. If he is trusted by the team he always plays well.
"And he always comes up with something. I remember once we were playing the Devils, when Avery stood in front of their goaltender Martin Brodeur and started swinging his stick. He was not breaking any rules, but Martin got really mad. Sean achieved what he wanted, he unsettled an opposing player.
"I think Sean needs a strong coach like Mike Keenan. To have him under control. Then a lot of scandals could have been avoided.
"Actually, people with a big self opinion will never understand Avery and will always think of him as an outsider. But I can never take Sean seriously. I have never had any problems with him."
Have you played on the same line with him?
"Sometimes. Sometimes we didn't have a good game and Sean would come to me and say with a straight face: ‘You played awfully bad today." And how should I react to that? I would reply with a sad face: "Sorry, Sean. I know, Sean. I am going to work harder to improve my numbers.' It's a little anecdotal."
Would you love to see him playing for Avangard Omsk?
"No!" Jagr started waiving his hands and almost fell from his chair laughing. "Two years playing together for the Rangers was enough. Couldn't you come up with a lighter sentence?"
Good stuff from Jagr, and again a reminder about Avery that most media seem to completely miss: Under the right circumstances, and with the right teammates, he's a viable asset on the ice. Jagr's got no reason to put him over now. And yet he did.