PITTSBURGH – Jaromir Jagr was trapped in the cramped visiting locker room at The Igloo on Friday morning like he rarely gets cornered on the ice. Flanked by cameras, notebooks and inquisitive minds everywhere he turned, the aging star of the New York Rangers had nowhere to escape. And there, standing in front of his stall, Jagr poured out suppressed feelings for his first NHL team and The Steel City, whose fans are not in the mood to forgive and forget.
It's hard to imagine this conversation would have occurred in Philadelphia, Montreal or Boston. And maybe Jagr secretly wishes New York's intended trek to the Stanley Cup Finals never would have to pass through Pittsburgh. But it has, and here he was and there was just nowhere to hide, nowhere to go.
"It happened eight years ago and nobody knew the truth," Jagr said before launching into details of his departure from the Penguins. "I was sad when they traded me."
Jagr's divorce from the team in which he still is featured prominently on the list of franchise records was not clean and hardly remains amicable from a fan's perspective today. Every time the 36-year-old touched the puck during Friday's Game 1 he got booed. It will continue during Sunday's Game 2 of the series, and for any more games played here during the remaining of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal as Jagr faces his former team for the first time in the playoffs.
Jagr tried to explain he put his former teammates ahead of himself, that Pittsburgh had too many stars to sign – citing Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka and Robert Lang in particular – and that the Penguins didn't have the resources to get everyone under contract. So he asked for a trade that came to fruition in the summer of 2001 to Washington.
"I love it here," said Jagr, who still owns a home in a nearby suburb. "Why would I have wanted to be traded? But I think they did good to trade me. It was the right move at the right time."
To this day Jagr is No. 2 in Pittsburgh's annals for games, goals, power-play goals, assists, points, playoff goals, playoff assists, playoff points and playoff game-winning goals.
It's all part of an NHL career that includes 1,273 games, 646 goals and 1,599 points for the Czech native who, besides winning two Cups, captured a Hart Trophy, the Lester B. Pearson Award twice and the Art Ross Trophy five times during his 11 seasons as a Penguin.
But as easy as it is to rehash the details from Jagr's departure, it's really about the future. It's a new era of young stars for the Penguins. No one forgets the accomplishments and contributions made by Jagr, who stepped into the perfect situation with Mario Lemieux as Pittsburgh's established superstar. Lemieux, of course, is the man ahead of Jagr on all those franchise-record lists. Jagr joined a roster of lesser stars and support players which led to consecutive Stanley Cups during his first two seasons.
The team has long since turned the page with a new cast of young stars, not unlike the late 1980s and early '90s. There is a lot of optimism and anticipation in Pittsburgh, and for good reason.
For Jagr, there are really only question marks. He's an unrestricted free agent this summer, and Jagr's future is definitely in question. Will he return to the Rangers? Probably not, almost assuredly not. Will he even be in the NHL next season, or venture back to Europe to play as has been rumored? Even he doesn't know.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," Jagr admitted. "First, I've got to make sure I play good hockey to show a lot of people I can still play good hockey."
It's an interesting comment because that sounds like something that needs to be said in training camp, not potentially three games from the end of the season. Jagr scored 25 goals during the regular season, the fewest he's produced during a 17-year Hall of Fame career. That was still enough, combined with 46 assists for 71 points, to lead New York in scoring if not below Jagr's high standards.
After leading the Rangers with two goals and eight points during a first-round series win in five games over the Devils, Jagr was good again in Game 1 against Pittsburgh. He provided two primary assists, including the last helper on Scott Gomez's game-tying goal midway through the third period. Jagr nearly tied it again late, his shot on the rush from the right wing with 14 seconds left glanced off the far post.
Jagr logged 18:46 of ice time, down slightly from his season and playoff average, but count on those numbers increasing as the series unfolds.
If things don't go the Rangers' way, however, how ironic would it be for Jagr's final NHL days to end at the hands, and maybe in the very building, where it all started? When asked what he thought about the possibility of his No. 68 jersey one day hanging in Pittsburgh, Jagr could only laugh nervously and softly utter, "I don't know."
And that just might have been the most sincere thing he said.