July 04, 2008
Look, we may never have another reason to run this photo of Jaromir Jagr at his prettiest until he enters the Hockey Hall of Fame. But his signing with Avangard-Omsk in that spiffy new Russian league means his NHL career is likely over. And while we've had our fun with his gambling habits and that caterpillar that crawled up and died on his face, he's still one of greatest hockey players puckheads have ever been blessed to watch skate. How will you remember Jagr?
Everything I want to say about Jagr I said in a piece for The Fourth Period over a year ago called "Everybody Hates Jaromir." Here's a clip that explains the main thrust of the piece:
Jagr is the most physically gifted player to compete in the National Hockey League in the last 25 years. He's never had the savvy and instincts of Mario or Gretzky, but they didn't have the unstoppable velocity Jagr had in his prime.
There are a lot of NHL 2.0 fans who believe Ovechkin reinvented the wheel last season with his meteoric game, his uncontainable power crossing the offensive blueline; they should ask their older brothers for a VHS of Jagr during his Penguin years. (By the way, kids, a "VHS" is that rectangular thing with the tape inside of it... you know, like the ones dad has in the top of his closet labeled with different girls' names?)
Ever hear of "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin?" The hockey version of that goes, "Love the Play, Hate the Player." And for me, that's Jagr: A tremendously gifted athlete whose talent is overshadowed by a loathsome demeanor, on the ice and off.
I sort of regret that last line, because while his attitude will forever detract and distract from his ability as a player, he wasn't universally loathed by those who played with him and those who covered him. Hell, even the fans that felt royally screwed by Jagr were willing to have him ride back into Pittsburgh and save the day.
There's a certain symbolism in that Jagr has 1,599 career points in the NHL. There's always going to be a sense that he falls just short of the immortality and universal appreciation attained by Gretzky and Mario. But forgetting the valid criticisms of his demeanor (and the near career-suicide of his stint with the Washington Capitals), I mean it when I say that Jagr is a singular talent that we'll never see again.
Because he could do things like this for the Pittsburgh Penguins:
Jagr said his inability to find chemistry with Scott Gomez and Chris Drury led to his demise with the Rangers. But Blueshirt fans appreciated the effort. Here's a fresh tribute to Jagr, with some rather loud Aerosmith cranking in the background:
As a Devils fan, I booed him as a Penguin and a booed him as a Ranger. This is usually the part where I'd say "but I always respected him," but I have a policy against lying to my readers.
But the truth is that, warts and all, hockey fans are better for having had the chance to experience Jagr in the NHL for the last 18 years.